Plants in the mallow, or Malvaceae, family are numerous and beautiful, and some of them are downright delicious! Plants from this family often have very similar showy flowers reminiscent of the classic hibiscus flower associated with the tropics.
This family is home to many ornamental, edible, and medicinals. Some it the members are even quite surprising. Did you know that both okra and cacao belong to the same family? Durian and marshmallow, as well as roselle hibiscus, are also cousins. And, let’s not forget cotton and pretty hollyhocks.
Source: Five-Minute Families/YouTube
Though it would be lovely, we don’t all live in the climate or even have room to grow our very cacao trees. However, there are a few members of this family that we can grow for their edible and medicinal properties.
It should be noted that not all plants from this family are edible, so do your research before consuming a plant from this family.
Source: Mountain Gardens/YouTube
Marshmallow (Althaea Officinalis) plants used to be a key ingredient in the white, fluffy campfire candy. Nowadays, however, this is not the case. Marshmallow, the plant, is used for several medicinal purposes and can be eaten as a cooked green.
Marshmallow leaves can be harvested and cooked down as you would any other cooking green. It can also be eaten raw, but fibers on the surface make it texturally off-putting for some.
Much like its cousin, okra, marshmallow has a high mucilage content. This is thought to help treat coughs and colds when taken as tea. Though the leaves can be used, often this tea is made from the roots.
Marshmallow makes a beautiful ornamental plant for your garden, too. It is a showy plant that can reach heights of five feet tall. You can plant marshmallows seeds outdoors in early spring about 12 inches apart. It is hardy to zone 7, so if you cut it back in the fall and mulch, it should come back the next year. If you leave seed pods on the plant, it will likely self-seed.
True to their name, they like moist, but well-draining soil and they also enjoy a sunny spot.
The mucilage content in many of these mallow family plants is enough to put some folks off. It’s probably because of this ‘sliminess’ that people are quite divided on the old okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)! To be fair, it does depend on how it is cooked. Boiling or steaming okra certainly brings out its sticky properties, but breading, searing or frying okra can help to mitigate this ‘issue’.
Growing okra, however, is easy and rewarding. It needs a pretty warm climate to grow successfully. It is grown as an annual in most climates but can be a perennial in the tropics. In the USA, it is hardy to zones 2-11. You can start your seeds indoors three or four weeks before the last frost of spring or direct sow your seeds when the soil reaches temperatures of 65-70°F. Okra plants need full sun and well-draining, nitrogen-rich soil.
You will see pretty hibiscus-like flowers before the seed pods (or edible okra fingers) begin to show. Try to harvest your okra young as the pods toughen and become woody as they mature—2-4 inches long is ideal. You can use your okra right away or freeze it in chunks for later use.
Source: Wendi Phan/YouTube
Roselle hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), or Jamaican rose, is another prized edible/medicinal from the mallow family. It is most commonly known as a tea that can be bought boxed at most supermarkets labeled ‘hibiscus tea’. This tea can be drunk hot or cold and is a wonderful pink color.
Roselle hibiscus tea, with its floral yet tart flavor, is packed with antioxidants and vitamin C. The tea is made from the dried calyces of the flower, but the leaves are also edible as a sour salad. It should be noted that they are high in oxalic acid, so they should not be consumed in large amounts.
Start your roselle seed indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost and transplant them out once they are 3-4 inches tall. Alternatively, direct sow them outside once the soil temperature reaches 75°- 85°F. Plant your seeds about 1/2 inch deep and thin out to 3 feet apart once established. Roselle hibiscus needs full sun.
You will notice beautiful blooms later in the growing season. Once the petals have fallen off, wait about a week and then harvest the calyces. Remove them carefully with sharp clippers. The seed pods are contained within these calyces, so you need to peel the calyx away from the seed pod. Next, dry what is left of the calyces and use them to make tea.
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