Key Words: 5 separate petals and a column of stamens. Mucilaginous texture.
If you have seen a hollyhock or hibiscus flower, then you can recognize the Mallow family. Wild species may be smaller, but you will know you have a Mallow when you find a funnel-shaped flower with 5 separate petals and a distinctive column of stamens surrounding the pistil. There are also 3-5 partially united sepals, often surrounded by several bracts. Crush any part of the plant and rub it between your fingers. You will notice a mucilaginous (slimy) texture, even in seemingly dry, desert species.
Worldwide there are about 85 genera and 1500 species, including 27 genera in North America. Hollyhock, hibiscus, and cotton are members of this family. Cotton is the only member of this family with documented poisonous properties. All others seem to be safe for edible and medicinal uses. Okra is the edible fruit of a variety of hibiscus. Marshmallow was originally derived from a type of hollyhock. Some other members of the family can be used as marshmallow substitutes. The ground up root or seeds are covered with water and boiled until half the liquid is gone. Then the liquid is beaten to a froth and sugar is added. It should make something resembling whipped cream.
The plants contain natural gums called mucilage, pectin, and asparagin, which gives them a slimy texture when crushed. It is the presence of these gums that creates the marshmallow effect. The members of the Mallow family are mostly edible as a salad greens and potherbs, although not very commonly used, probably due to their slimy consistency. The flowers and seeds are also edible.
Medicinally, the mucilaginous quality of the Mallows may be used just like the unrelated Aloe vera or cactus: externally as an emollient for soothing sunburns and other inflamed skin conditions, or internally as a demulcent and expectorant for soothing sore throats.
Plants of the Mallow Family
Notice how the flowers below resemble hollyhock and hibiscus flowers with the five separate petals and a column of stamens.
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