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Mallow Mysteries

July 30, 2019

When I was growing up, the big, showy flowers blooming in local marshes in mid-summer, and currently alongside the pond in the Tawes Garden, were known as Marsh Mallows.  This always confused me, since I couldn't figure out what they had to do with marshmallow candy.  The flowers are frequently white, but look nothing like sweets.

          Eventually I learned that the accepted common name for our native Hibiscus moscheutos and a few closely related species is Rose Mallow or Swamp Rose Mallow.  They are members of a large, cosmopolitan genus that includes the very showy but tender Tropical Hibiscus, H. rosa-sinensis, and the Rose-of-Sharon shrub, H. syriacus (which comes from China, not Syria).  And it also includes the true Marsh Mallow, Althaea officinalis, which hails from Eastern Europe and North Africa but is naturalized on parts of the East Coast.  Is everyone confused now?

          Whatever; the important thing is that our own tall, robust Rose Mallows with saucer-sized flowers of white or pink, usually with a deep red eye, mark the high point of summer in our region.  They flaunt their blooms in masses in low-lying or swampy areas and create a fine spectacle alongside many highways and bridges.  They don't require such wet conditions, however, and will grow happily in sun and reasonably moist soil in the garden.  There are hybrid forms of the standard white and pink with flowers the size of dinner plates, but the basic wild form seems showy enough.

         So what about true Marsh Mallows?  In fact, their roots were once (still?) used to make a soft confection with the same name, but whether it tasted anything like the gooey, cloyingly sweet marshmallows we know today, I can't say.

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