Six weeks or so ago, I could see why Juan Batista de Anza saw this as the Valley of Paradise. I mean, I have to struggle a bit to see past the mega-suburb that lies on top, but I can just about imagine what he must have seen: snow on the distant blue mountaintops, juniper-scented breezes, the graceful twisted trunks of sycamores and oaks along the river, and green hills speckled with wildflowers and golden granite boulders.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long. Maybe three months of the year if we’re lucky; the other nine are sere and brown. Remember the story of Persephone? The way I first heard it, her grieving mother Demeter blights the earth during the months Persephone spends reigning as queen of the Underworld, and this is what we know as winter. But recently I read an interpretation (I cannot for the life of me remember the source–sorry) that said that in Greece, the “dead” time of year is summer, not winter. I don’t know how accurate that is; I’ve never been to Greece (alas) and winter is still the time when days are shortest, light is least, and plants are mostly dormant. But I think of that interpretation as I watch the seasons in inland Southern California. Persephone doesn’t spend much time above ground here.
In this dry and fire-prone climate, plants survive the heat by either storing water internally, finding some way to draw it up from deep beneath, or shriveling up, turning brown, and waiting, their life hidden underground. Many of these plants, of course, can help us hold onto moisture too. Rebecca Altman of Cauldrons & Crockpots has written extensively and eloquently about the waterways of our bodies, for example this lovely post, and this piece on how ocotillo moves stagnant waters, and this post on dampness and our bodies’ boundaries. Maybe she notices moisture and dryness so much because she is from Scotland, one of the rainiest places in the world, and now lives in Southern California, one of the least rainy. (Stephen Colbert once referred to the British as “mist-based life forms.”) Regardless, moisture–and the lack thereof–is something very much on the minds of all Californians these days.
I don’t want to infrige her copyright by quoting huge chunks of her writing, so just go read any of those posts. It’s ok–I’ll wait.
Moving on to today’s topic: mallows, the family Malvaceae, of which there are many native species. Calflora returned a list of 40 native species in 10 genera in Riverside County alone. Plus I frequently see some kind of as-yet-unidentified-by-me non-native Malva species–commonly known by the adorable moniker cheeseweed–along the margins of sidewalks all over the Inland Mega-‘Burb. Probably M. neglecta.
Although related plants are not 100% interchangeable, the keyword for all the mallows is soothing. Henriette Kress groups them together as YAMFDs–Yet Another Mallow Family Demulcent. Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) may be the most famous, but for all the species that I’ve been able to find any information about, they are mucilaginous, cooling, moistening, and sweetly nourishing. Matthew Wood calls marshmallow the “indispensable water remedy;” while marshmallow is awesome, I think it’s always best to use native herbs where possible so by all means, if you are in Southern California, use Southern California mallows. They are excellent for people who are overheated (you can see why they are so useful in this climate!) and, from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, they are a yin tonic. When I went to an acupuncturist I was surprised to learn that I was deficient in yin. Not knowing much about TCM, but being female and tending to be cold when I was younger, I just assumed I would have yin a-plenty. Not so. It’s something for everyone to watch out for in very dry climates like this–it is very likely that on some level, at least seasonally, you will need the soft soothing of a mallow.
All the mallows are useful for treating irritation of the skin, mucosa, and digestive tract. Interestingly, mallows are also drawing, and are used on swellings such as sprains and broken bones. Wood attributes this to mallows’ softening effect; the type of swellings that respond well to mallows tend to be hard.
Mallows harmonize well with rose, which is similarly cooling and soothing but adds a mild astringent action. Wood cites another herbalist, David Dalton, who “considers it [marshmallow flower essence] to be a remedy for hardening of the personality, inflexibility, hardheartedness, intolerance, and inability to feel one’s emotions. He looks upon it as a heart remedy…” This is the energetic dimension of mallows’ softening and soothing action. Rose is, of course, the botanical symbol of love and beauty in many cultures, and a famously heart-centered and heart-opening medicine–but I’ll leave more in-depth discussion of rose for another post.
I have not been able to find very much about mallows in the ethnobotanical literature, although I have no doubt they were used by native peoples. Leaves of Sidalcea malviflora (dwarf checkerbloom) are edible raw or cooked. This species can be found in chaparral and coastal sage scrub plant communities. According to the Native American Ethnobotany page (I can’t link to search results so do a search for the genus name), the Navajo used cold infusion of a related species of checkerbloom to treat internal injuries.
An infusion made from species in the genus Sphaeralcea, the globemallows (our local variety is S. ambigua, desert globemallow or apricot mallow), will help soothe irritated GI tracts when there is dryness coupled with inflammation, according to Kiva Rose (more by her here and here) and Michael Moore. According to the Native American Ethnobotany page, the plant was used for everything from sore eyes to bug bites to broken bones–all applications traditionally within the mallow wheelhouse. Two points of interest with desert globemallow–first, it has tiny, irritating hairs on the leaves and stems. Kiva Rose warns that if working with anything but the roots, be very careful to strain these hairs out. Not just with cheesecloth–we’re talking coffee filters here. Second, and again this is according to Rose, the plant infuses well into oil, even though you might predict that it would cause mold due to its moisture.
When in flower, desert globemallow has gorgeous orange cup-shaped flowers. These are very small, about the size of my thumb nail, but abundant. The plant is typically found in creosote bush scrub and chaparral plant communities, and likes alkaline soil. I planted one in my native herb garden this past fall, and so far it is doing well. It has even produced a few flowers.
I like mallows so much that I also have a non-native mallow growing in my garden, tree mallow or Lavatera arborea. It is actually from the Mediterranean but, the climate here being so similar to the Mediterranean, it is quite happy here even though its native habitat is maritime. It is so pretty I just couldn’t resist planting one. Unfortunately, it’s very popular with hungry rabbits and/or ground squirrels. It can be eaten by humans too, but the leaves are hairy like those of the desert globemallow which tends to diminish their culinary appeal. Its medicinal uses include as a poultice for burns and sprains.
Today I received some seeds of another non-native mallow, musk mallow or ambrette (Abelmoschus moschatus). They were a gift from Anya McCoy–the creator of Anya’s Garden natural perfumes and author of the Anya’s Garden blog–who generously offered them to her readers (they are all claimed now). Ambrette plants are edible, ornamental, and utilized in Ayurvedic medicine in their native India. The highly aromatic seeds are used in perfumery. Ambrette has many medicinal applications–antispasmodic and nervine (relaxing inside and out!), diuretic, antiseptic, carminative, aphrodisiac, and like other mallows, demulcent and cooling. As aromatherapy it is used to treat depression and anxiety. I am very excited to meet this many-faceted plant!
The heat will be upon us soon, so get your mallow medicine ready! And be sure and check out the various articles I’ve linked for many practical applications of these soothing herbal allies.