Out of all the plants you can grow for luscious leafiness, Malvas are the best. Some even surpass lettuce in my opinion, since they don’t get bitter in heat. When you add on the perennial nature of some, there’s just nothing that can beat them.
I just wish they contained all these characteristics in one species. M. moschata is perennial but the leaves a bit too fuzzy. Malva (sometimes Althea) officionalis, the marshmallow plant, so named because the Egyptians made the first rudiments of today’s marshmallows by boiling the mucilage-rich root, is about the same, often too fuzzy.
There is hope for these fuzzy characters as a leaf crop, especially marshmallow. You see it seeds quite well, its progeny often making a regular mat of green beneath it. These small sprouts can grow as much as three feet or more in their first year. For a while in this first year, the leaves of most specimens have no fuzz, and are quite tasty. Considering their tendency to mob their neighbors, you need to rip out a few anyway. The parent will make plenty more appear next spring. If managed this way, it really is a good cooking or salad green.
What plants you miss for leaves are very good for roots. Although growing in a number of directions, with a central ball, the taste and texture of the root, when cooked, is hardly different from carrots. The texture is, if anything, a little more moist than carrots, due to the mucilage in Malvas.
Although the tender little seedlings of marshmallow are good, the best Malva for leaves is M. verticillata, commonly called vegetable mallow. They’re huge, usually 6-8 inches across with ruffled edges. Fuzziness is hardly to be found, even on the mature leaves, and the slightly mucilaginous texture is pretty enjoyable on the palate.
Unlike lettuce, this has enough substance that it doubles as a really good cooking green, maintaining texture, and, due to the mucilage, staying moist in a light sauté. I like to add it to mixed greens including lambsquarter, and amaranth, which have similar textures.
The biggest downside is it’s annual, so I have to plant it every year. It does self seed, but in the food forest that doesn’t help much because they need the fertility of annuals, and I can only get them to grow in first year beds. The second year they appear, they can hardly compete with marshmallow seedlings in size, so why bother.
The young plants are also frost sensitive, so early sprouts get frosted. I usually start a flat of seedlings in April to be planted out in late May after frost is gone.
The real place these shine is self seeding in fertile annual gardens. Below is a row that popped up on its own in our CSA gardens after tilling for fall carrots in July. They are quite luscious. In these conditions, they can easily reach 6ft. If planted in a greenhouse, these can easily get 8ft tall.
Stephen Barstow mentions in his fantastic book that some perennial versions have popped up in the gene pool. I’m still looking.
The middle of the road is Malva sylvestris. Not overly fuzzy but not large leaves, and can come back perennial.
It’s also quite popular as an ornamental, so is easy to find -varieties like “Zebrina,” or “Mystic Merlin” mix, for instance. They self seed, and usually grow about 3 ft or smaller.
A slight step down that takes care of itself entirely is M. pusilla. In my area, this is a weed that grows in cement cracks and tilled garden soil alike. Unlike the vegetable mallow, it doesn’t have a dramatic preference for either; it’s just a little larger in garden soil.
It is a creeper, rarely rising over a foot before crawlIng away to the next crack in the cement. I wish it covered the ground more thickly so I could call it a ground cover, but the leaves are too sparse.
This is in part because the leaves are small; usually they can’t push much farther than an inch and a half across. Although they aren’t especially fuzzy either -being worthy of a mixed, hearty salad in my opinion, but not alone. Just be sure you have correctly identified the plant before making your evening meal from the cracks in your back patio. Economical, I know, but please do your research.
All being in the same genus, I keep hoping some of the specimens I keep close together will mix and give rise to the ideal, luscious, huge, hardy, long lived perennial Malva mashup of my dreams. I haven’t seen a seedling showing signs of a mix yet. Until that time, I can get quite a descent salad from the array growing themselves, I just need to manage their ecologies.
Book update: The softcover copy of PASSIVE Gardening is finally formatted and off to the printer. I know many of you have been waiting for this, so I’m pleased to announce it’s now available here. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!