Cotton, gumbo, and marshmallows.
From the Davis Enterprise, July 26, 2007
Certain plant families have
provided us with important crops that have altered the course of civilization.
The grass family is probably the most important. The rose family has given us
stone fruits (Prunus) and pome fruits (Malus).
But the little family Malvaceae, the Mallow family, provided us with cotton, probably
the world's most important fiber crop. Mallows also provide us with the
original ingredient used to make marshmallows. Okra, the key ingredient in
gumbo, is a mallow. For gardeners in California, mallows provide some very
useful, showy, summer-flowering perennials and shrubs. Some are spectacular! It
can be hard to find easy-to-grow flowers in July and August here, so the mallow
family members are worth a look.
Flowers of Mallow family
members are quite recognizable. From hollyhocks to cotton to okra, tropical
hibiscus to Confederate rose, the similarity of flower structure makes it easy
to see the familial relationship.
The annual and biennial
members of the family are well-known. Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) are Mediterranean flowers that will reseed
themselves merrily about your garden. Most are true biennials: seeded now,
hollyhocks will grow a clump of leaves through the winter, then bloom in spring
and early summer. And I mean bloom! 6 – 10' tall spikes, with dozens of
flowers over many weeks. Dwarf forms are available, but why bother? Spikes of
stately hollyhocks give an old-fashioned look to any garden. Okra (Hibiscus
esculentus) and cotton (Gossypium) are summer-grown annual crops. California's cotton crop is worth about $1 billion annually, grown on 700- 800,000 acres.
Anyone who has traveled to
Hawai'i or Southern California knows the familiar Tropical hibiscus, Hibiscus
rosa-sinensis. If you want to grow it
here, be aware that it will be damaged – probably very badly –
every winter. Cold weather in 1990, '98, and January 2007 killed most of them
here. I do have a customer who has taken protective measures every winter:
seedling blankets and holiday lights (big bulbs, not twinkly) have allowed her
plants to become good-sized shrubs. If you don't want to hassle with that, grow
them in pots and move them to a sheltered spot each winter, or pull them inside
(check for aphids first!) by Hallowe'en.
A note about edibility
Hibiscus flowers are often listed on 'edible flower' lists, and herbal teas
containing Hibiscus are common. Commonly these are referring, I assume, to H.
rosa-sinensisBut some species have medicinal
properties, flowers of some species interact with prescription medications, and
some have reported adverse reactions. I wouldn't eat any species unless I had
it correctly identified and was sure of its safety. There are some useful
references at www.hibiscus.org
You can get the same showy flower on a hardy plant with Rose of
Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), which
will grow anywhere from Idaho to San Diego (as well as in Hawai'i). The flowers
are about 3' across and borne along the branches in great profusion.Loves heat, tolerates drought, and
grows slowly into a tree if you allow it to – but one annual pruning can
keep it any height you prefer. Sterile triploid varieties such as 'Diana' set
no seed, which prolongs the bloom and avoids seedlings. Use Rose of Sharon as
you would Crape myrtle: a large shrub or small tree with showy summer flowers.
You can get even bigger hibiscus flowers on a shorter
plant that is equally hardy. Just plant Hibiscus moscheutos, sometimes called Rose-mallow. These have blooms that
are as much as ten inches across! The foliage is bold and attractive. Then the
plant dies to the ground in winter, at which time you can cut it completely
down. Varieties range from 3 – 6' tall. Another great addition to the
There are several other
species in the genus Hibiscus.H.
coccineus grows just like H.
moscheutos, but has narrow leaves and
bright red flowers. It is an elegant plant, though less spectacular. H.
cannabinus, as the name implies, has
leaves that look like Cannabis
(but which do not, repeat do not,
contain the active ingredient). Oddly, under certain weather conditions the
leaves also smell like marijuana. This subtropical species of African origin,
called Kenaf, is grown for fiber.
Two related shrubs have become
common in northern California landscapes for their long bloom season and ease
of care. Both are tolerant of full, hot sun, and drought.
Blue hibiscus (Alyogyne
huegelii) is a somewhat coarse
looking shrub that gets to 6' or more, and blooms nearly continuously with
purple hibiscus flowers. The freeze of January '07 killed many of these
locally, but they usually get through our winters here.
Two species of Tree mallow (Lavatera) are also in the trade. L. maritima has light pink flowers with a darker rose veination
and soft grey-green leaves, but is kind of leggy. L. thuringiaca blooms longer, nearly year-around, with purplish-pink
flowers, and has a denser habit. Both take well to occasional hard pruning. My
plant of the latter had sprawled nearly 15' across when I decided to hack it to
the ground this spring. It has forgiven me and resprouted nicely.
Orange is an unusual color in
the garden, and one group within Malvaceaeis notable for flowers in shades of orange as well as tolerance for hot, dry locations. There are several species of Globe mallows (Sphaeralcea-- just try to pronounce it! I say S-fare-allsee-uh), most somewhat weedy looking but whose flowers
redeem the plants' ranginess. S. incanaand S. munroanaare
unique summer-blooming additions to the dry landscape.
One member of the family is a
shade favorite here. Abutilon is
sometimes called Flowering maple – a confusing common name, since it is
not even remotely related to maples! The hibiscus-like flowers are in warm
shades of pink, orange, red, and also white, and Abutilonwill bloom in anything from morning sun to full shade. I believe we should expand the climate range given in the Sunset Western Garden Book (8,9, 12-24), as I have had little or no damage on mine during
freezing weather ranging down to the mid-teens. One gardener I know also grows
them indoors with good results.
>About those marshmallows'.Althaea
officinalis, the Marsh mallow, is an
Old World herb that has been used in cooking and for medicinal purposes for
thousands of years. As the name implies, it will grow in swampy soils.
Introduced into North America hundreds of years ago, it has naturalized in the
eastern states. The roots contain starch (37%), mucilage (11% -- the same stuff
that makes okra slimy), and pectin (11%). The sap was combined with sugar and
beaten until fluffy, then cooked. Nowadays corn starch, sugar, corn syrup, and
gelatin are used instead. Mmmmm. S'mores, anyone?
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
Click here for Don's other Davis Enterprise articles