The malva plant, or common malva (Malva neglecta) is one of the most underrated garden flowers. Unfairly considered by many to be a nuisance or a weed, the malva plant is, in fact, an attractive and useful addition to the garden. Also known as French hollyhock or tall mallow these are grand, old fashioned flowers that are a quintessential part of the cottage garden.
If you want to learn more about the malva plant, this guide is for you. As well as explaining its many benefits and uses we will also highlight some of the most attractive species and explain exactly how you can cultivate your own malva plant.
When in bloom the mallow produces masses of attractive, colorful flowers.
What is a Malva Plant?
Malva or mallow is the name given to a genus of flowering plants belonging to the Malvaceae family. This means that it is related to other common garden flowers including rose of sharon, hollyhocks and hibiscus. The mallow is also sometimes known as the cheese weed. This is because the seeds can look like cheese wheels.
An annual or biennial specimen, depending on the growing conditions, the mallow is native to Western Europe and Central Asia. Today it is considered naturalized in many temperate regions.
As well as being visually attractive, the mallow has a number of uses. The malva plant is rich in nutrients including magnesium, calcium, potassium, selenium, iron and vitamins A and C.
Mallow foliage is edible. It’s pleasant, mild flavor means that it is a popular ingredient in wild salads. The leaves can also be used like spinach or to thicken soups and stews. Ripe seeds can be eaten raw or roasted like nuts. The flowers are also edible. These are commonly used as a sweet or decorative garnish for desserts such as iced cakes and jellies.
The common mallow was used by Native Americans to treat wounds, bites, bruising, inflammations, infections, sore throats and toothache. They also found that chewing on mallows provided a useful way to clean their teeth. The leaves were often used to draw out splinters or thorns.
Malva plant extracts have also been used to treat tuberculosis. Additionally, mallow has proven to be an effective treatment for high blood sugar as well as a useful anti-inflammatory or emollient. Extracts can also be used to soften the skin.
Finally, the flowers of the malva plant are also popular with pollinators.
Different Types of Malva Plant
The malva genus contains 10 distinct species including flowering herbaceous perennials. Some, such as the Zebrina, Fastigata and Moravia are suitable for growing in home gardens. Here the mallow’s easy to grow, showy flowers can be used to add color and interest to mixed flower beds or as landscaping specimens. Zebrinas, Fastigatas and Moravias are hybrid cultivars that are also related to the hollyhock.
Mallows are typically tall specimens, most reach a height of about 4 ft. However, some varieties can reach up to 10 ft in height. The plants can be either single or multi stemmed. Most cultivars develop an extensive branching system either at the base or the top of the stemt. Again, depending on the cultivar the mallow can be slender or stout. While basal leaves are rarely lobed, the higher, floral leaves are shallowly lobed or triangular in shape.
The flowers, which sit on tall, hairy stems, have a single row of flat petals. While some flowers are just one color others are patterned or variegated. Zebrina, one of the older types of malva plant, is also known as striped mallow because it produces lavender flowers with visible magenta veins. Fastigata flowers are soft pink while Moravia produces large fuschia colored flowers with visible contrasting veins.
The common mallow plant (M. Sylvestris) can reach a height of between 6 and 24 inches. Once established, it produces white or pink hollyhock-like flowers on long stems. The glossy foliage, with its wavy edges, is also attractive. The common mallow typically flowers from early in the spring until mid or late fall. Also known as the French Hollyhock or Tree Mallow the common mallow plant is hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8.
Depending on the climate the common cultivar is either an annual or biennial specimen. The flowers of the common mallow have both male and female parts, meaning that it is classed as a self-fertile hermaphrodite. Like other types of malva plant the common mallow is capable of self sowing and spreading around the garden.
The common mallow, like hollyhock and borage, grows from a long taproot. This allows the mallow to tolerate and even thrive in conditions that may be too harsh or dry for other garden flowers. Mallows are commonly found growing in gardens, wastelands, along roadsides and around waterways.
Thanks to its long taproot, common mallow thrives in difficult conditions.
Common mallow can be used as both a medicinal remedy, treating bites, bruises and inflammations, or as a culinary ingredient, thickening soups and adding flavor to salads.
As well as the common mallow there are a number of other attractive, easy to grow cultivars. The following are amongst the most popular and commonly grown. Unless otherwise specified most types of malva plant are hardy in USDA Zones 6 and warmer.
Also known as Malva Bibor Felho, Gibbortello is a hardy perennial popular for its shrubby growth habit. Above the foliage dark veined, purple flowers sit on tall spikes.
Flowering during the spring and summer months, Gibbortello achieves a mature height of between 3 and 4 ft. Hardy in USDA Zones 6 and warmer, in favorable conditions Gibbortellos also self seed. Best placed in full sun, in warmer areas Gibbortello happily grows in partial shade positions.
The visible dark veins add to the attraction of these rich flowers.
Moschata or Musk Mallow is a perennial or biennial specimen depending on the growing conditions. Hardy down to USDA Zones 5, the lobed or heart shaped foliage showcases attractive funnel shaped pink flowers.
Moschata flowers from summer until early fall. This cultivar has a pleasing, bushy growth habit. Moschata is at its best when growing in full sun and moist, well draining soil. After around 5 years of steady growth Moschata achieves a height and spread of around 3 ft. Easy to grow from seed or basal cuttings, Musk mallow can be grown in beds, borders and wildlife gardens. One of the smallest malva plant cultivars, Moschata doesn’t require pruning. If correctly cared for, it is also largely pest and problem free.
Rich green foliage helps to showcase the open blooms of the Musk Mallow.
Native to Europe and Southwest Asia, Moscata Alba specimens are identified by their saucer shaped white flowers. Flowering from June to September, this cultivar is hardy down to USDA Zone 5. While the foliage is green, this cultivar is rarely evergreen.
Displaying a clump forming growth habit, mature Moschata Alba specimens can reach a height of just under 3 ft and spread about 2 ft wide. A slow growing specimen, it can take up to 5 years for Moschata Alba to reach its mature height. Like other types of mallow, this cultivar is best placed in a full sun position and well draining soil.
Pale or white flowers are just as popular with pollinators as more richly colored blooms.
Moschata Alba foliage has a mild flavor and is often used in salads. Popular with butterflies, Moschata Alba is a low maintenance variety.
Commonly known as Chinese Mallow, Cluster Malva or Mauce Chinoise the flowers of the Verticillata cultivar are typically pink or purple in color. Popular with pollinators, these pretty flowers sit above bright green leaves.
Hardy in USDA Zones 6 to 12, Chinese Mallow is best grown in nitrogen rich soil. Depending on the climate these specimens are annual or biennial. Flowering from July to September, mature specimens can reach a height of 5.5 ft. Thriving in full sun positions, the Chinese Mallow is not a frost tender specimen.
The Crispa is a short lived perennial specimen that readily self seeds in favorable conditions. Reaching a height of around 5 ft these attractive specimens thrive in well draining soil and full sun. In addition to the colorful flowers, the foliage has wavy edges, further adding to the attraction. The foliage, if consumed, also has a pleasing texture and mild flavor. This is one of the most productive types of malva plant, thriving in heat and resisting frost well.
Moschata Mixed is another malva plant variety that is native to Europe and North Africa. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8, during the early summer months pale pink and white flowers emerge. With a little care these can last until the start of fall.
Moschata Mixed specimens enjoy a bushy growth habit, reaching a height of 3 ft and spreading around 2 ft wide. This makes it the ideal choice to fill out gaps in flower beds. In favorable climates Moschata Mixed also self-seeds, meaning that it reliably returns year after year.
Bushy varieties help to fill out awkward gaps in flower beds.
How to Grow a Malva Plant
The malva plant is pleasingly easy to grow. If you can’t find a suitable specimen in your local garden store new specimens can be cultivated from seed, basal cuttings or divisions.
Seeds can be sown directly into the final growing position but it is better, if you have the space, to start them undercover. This enables you to better protect the seedlings, ensuring they develop into strong, healthy specimens.
Seeds are best sown from February to June. If you are able to overwinter the seedlings undercover you can also start them in September and October.
Fill Seed Starting Seedling Trays with fresh seed compost and moisten. Once the excess water has drained away, sow the seeds as thinly as you can over the soil. Don’t worry if a few clump together, you can pick out the weaker specimens after germination. Thinly cover the seeds with a fresh layer of compost. Don’t bury them too deeply.
Sow seeds as thinly as possible.
Place the trays in a light position, either on a greenhouse shelf or on a windowsill. Remember to regularly mist the trays with a Plant Mister Spray Bottle. This helps to prevent the soil from drying out and the seedlings from failing.
Depending on the cultivar and surrounding conditions, seeds can take up to 4 weeks to germinate.
Following germination prick out the weakest seedlings. Once they are large enough to handle the strongest specimens can be transplanted into 3 inch pots. Biodegradable Pots are particularly useful for growing seedlings. When you are ready to transplant, the seedling can be placed in the ground while still in the pot. As the seedling grows and the roots develop the peat pot breaks down, allowing the roots to spread out. Using biodegradable pots also helps to reduce the rise of transplant shock.
Keep the growing seedlings undercover and continue to water regularly. After hardening off they can be transplanted in early summer.
To sow the seeds directly into their growing position, weed and rake the flower bed. The soil should be fine and crumbly. Scatter the seeds and rake in lightly. Moistening the soil before sowing encourages the seeds to stick in place. Spread a thin, protective layer of soil or compost over the seeds.
Continue to water and carefully weed the flowerbed until the seedlings are established. Specimens can be thinned out to spacings of around 18 inches when they are large enough to handle.
Dividing a Mature Mallow
Established clumping or shrubby types of mallow can be lifted and divided. This not only rejuvenates the specimen, prompting lots of fresh growth the following year, it is also a great way to get a new mallow for free.
Gardeners in cooler areas can divide established specimens in the spring, before new growth appears. In warmer areas you can also divide your mallow in the fall.
With a sharp shovel carefully dig all around the base of the mallow. Dig deeply down, ensuring that you get under as much of the root as possible. Carefully lift the mallow from the ground.
Cut the root into healthy sections with a sharp, clean knife or shovel. Each section should have a healthy amount of root and stem or foliage. Place the root in a greenhouse or on a windowsill to allow the cut area to dry out and heal. Once it has dried, replant the healthy, divided root sections at the same depth as previously.
Taking Basal Cuttings
Basal cuttings are best taken in the spring.you should only ever take basal cuttings from healthy specimens.
When you are ready, inspect your mallows and identify the healthiest basal shoots. Use a sharp, sterilized knife to cut 3 or 4 of the healthiest basal leaves away from the mallow. Aim to make the cuts as close to the base as possible.
Only use healthy, pest free basal leaves for cuttings.
Plant the cuttings in small pots filled with fresh compost or potting soil. Place the pots in a propagator. The Tabor Tools Propagator has built-in humidity vents. These help you to better control the surrounding conditions as roots develop.
Water or mist the pots regularly. Cuttings may fail if the soil is allowed to dry out. As the cuttings grow and develop they will require regular repotting.
How and Where to Grow
The malva plant does best when growing in well draining soil. These specimens particularly thrive in loamy soils that are either pH neutral or slightly acidic. Avoid planting in extremely acidic or alkaline soils. If you are unsure a soil test kit can quickly tell you the condition of your soil. This valuable information allows you to make any necessary amendments before you begin to grow your flowers.
Mallows like to receive at least 6 hours of sunlight each day. This means that you should avoid growing them in shady areas.
Growing in a sunny spot encourages healthy growth and lots of flowers to form.
Before planting, weed and dig over your soil. Remove any rocks and pebbles and break up clumps of earth as you do so. You may also want to take this opportunity to work in amendments or compost to improve the soil.
When you are ready to plant, dig a hole in the soil large enough to comfortably hold the malva plant. An easy way to check that the hole is big enough is to simply place the pot currently holding the malva plant in the hole. It should sit comfortably in the center of the hole.
Remove the plant from the pot and place in the center of the hole. Backfill the hole and, using a garden hose, water well.
If you are planting more than one specimen, aim to space them roughly 36 inches apart. Smaller cultivars may tolerate being planted slightly closer together.
Caring for a Malva Plant
Once planted the malva plant is pleasingly low maintenance. Keep the soil around your mallows clear of debris and weeds.
During the first year large rosettes of leaves develop. These are followed in the second year by tall floral spikes.
Water your mallows regularly. Mallows struggle if allowed to sit in dry soil for an extended period.
An occasional dose of balanced fertilizer helps to encourage healthy growth. You can also add a slow release granular fertilizer to the soil when planting.
Deadhead the flowers as they fade. This prevents the spent flowers from setting seed and, once ripe, spreading around the garden. Mallow seeds can remain viable for decades in the ground before germinating.
If the fading flowers are allowed to remain on the plant, they may set seed and spread throughout your garden.
If you are lifting and removing a malva plant you will need to dig deeply. This enables you to get under and lift the entire taproot.
To encourage a bushy growth habit, pinch out the growing point. This stunts the plant’s upward growth habit. Pinching out a row of mallows planted in a line encourages a floral dwarf hedge to form.
Some types of malva plant can flower for an extended period. It is not unusual for some, such as the Zebrina to flower throughout the summer and well into the fall. In warmer climates they can continue to flower until the first frosts develop.
In the case of long lasting flowers such as the Zebrina, the process of flowering for an extended period can exhaust the plant. This often leads to it failing to return the following year. To prevent this, allow some of the spent flowers to remain in place and go to seed. This enables the plant to self-seed and return to the same place the following year. To prevent the seeds from spreading around the garden you can also harvest the ripe seeds and sow them yourself.
Pests and Disease
The malva plant is pleasingly low maintenance. While insect infestations are rare, the Japanese beetle has been known to attract the foliage.
Slugs and snails may also be a problem, particularly when flowers are young and developing. Our guide to getting rid of slugs from your garden is full of useful, easy to implement suggestions if they are a particular problem.
Diseases such as Mallow Rust are not uncommon. More commonly known as Hollyhock Rust, this disease causes dark blisters to develop on the underside of foliage. If allowed to develop, this disease can kill the plant. Mallow Rust is difficult to cure but easy to prevent.
To prevent Mallow Rust, when watering aim to water only the soil. Keep the leaves as dry as possible. Spacing your specimens out helps to promote airflow around and through the foliage. Finally, keeping the soil clear and free of weeds and leaf debris also helps.
If a malva plant does develop rust it is best liftend and destroyed before the infection can spread to other specimens.
These are easy to grow, low maintenance flowers.
Attractive and easy to grow, the malva plant is often unfairly considered to be an unwelcome visitor to the garden. However, as you can see, mallows are not only attractive, they also have a myriad of uses from culinary and medicinal uses to colorful flowers and providing a source of food for pollinators. Why not add a malva plant to your flower bed this year?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.