Know Your Weeds: Malva neglecta
Once upon a time marshmallows were made of the sticky juices squeezed from the pulverized roots of marsh mallow, or Althaea officinalis. Nowadays marshmallows are made from a viscous protein solution, like gelatin, that’s been whipped full of air and sugar, but the old name still sticks. The marsh mallow is a weedy relative of Gossypium hirsutum, the cotton plant, Althaea rosea, the hollyhock, and Abelmoshus esculentus, or okra. I don’t grow cotton, hollyhocks, or okra, but my farm is plagued with another mallow, Malva neglecta, or cheeseweed. If you try to pull a cheeseweed up it’s likely to break off above the ground, leaving the roots behind to re-sprout and leaving your hands slimy. The roots of most mallows are typically mucilaginous when you crush them. There’s even a mallow species that scientists have given the name Bastardia viscosa var. sanctae-crucis, or “the viscous Bastardia from Santa Cruz,” in vulgar English.
I know now that a number of different Mallow species have medicinal properties and are said to be good for soothing coughs and healing wounds. In fact, today’s confectionery marshmallow was originally conceived as a palatable delivery system for bitter medicine. One time, when I was traveling in Bolivia, I stayed with a farm family in a lovely hacienda far out in the back country of Tarija Province. When she learned that I was a farmer, the ama de casa was delighted to show me her lovely kitchen garden that took up the entire central courtyard. After lunch, she and her husband took a siesta, but I was restless, so after lying around for a while I decided to do my hostess a favor by pulling up the cheeseweeds I’d seen growing amongst her peppers. How was I to know that they were actually “yerbas curativas,” and very difficult to grow in Bolivia? When she woke up from her nap the good woman was dismayed– she said something about a bicho malo that always ate the malva seedlings before the plants could grow. I felt sad. We certainly don’t have that problem here. American bugs won’t eat Malva neglecta and neither will we. Meanwhile the drug companies get rich selling cough syrup and I pay farm workers to kill malva. It’s too bad I can’t make artisanal, medicinal “field mallows” for you all to roast at home, but the FDA would probably frown on that.
So why, you ask, is Malva neglecta called “cheeseweed” if it’s slimy, fibrous and tough?
MalvaCheeseweed has a schizocarp shaped like a cheese wheel. “Schizocarp” is fancy botanical talk for a fruit that splits up into pieces. The ten seeds that make up each cheeseweed fruit fall to the ground like rain when the plant matures and they remain vital in the soil for years. On bad days I think I can remember hearing a story on National Public Radio where some scientists discovered a ceramic jar full of seeds in an undisturbed Anasazi cave dwelling that was five thousand years old. Hoping to discover new facts about ancient agriculture, the scientists planted the ancient seeds. But only the Malva neglecta sprouted. This tale could just be my paranoia talking, though. So what can a farmer like me do to rid a plot of ground of mallow without resorting to powerful toxic chemicals that also defy the ages?
First, before planting, we pre-irrigate the field we’re going to plant. Mallow seeds sprout almost overnight once they’ve been refreshed with a drink of water. Then we plant our crop. Carrots take fourteen days to germinate, and onions can take ten. The first two leaves, or cotyledons, of a nascent malva plant look like a pair of tiny green valentines. After the mallow seeds have sprouted but before the crop we’ve sown has germinated, we pass over the weedy bed with a hand held gas torch. The mallow seedlings are tender and wilt to death at the merest touch of flame. There is no need to stand over the seedlings and incinerate them. Bigger organic farms use tractor mounted torches and speed down the field. You can think of this organic flame weeding technique as “roasting field mallows” if you want. Burning mallows down the rows is never as fun as roasting marshmallows over the coals, but one thing’s for sure; no matter how much Malva neglecta we’re able to kill there are always “smore” where they came from!
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
lamb photos from new ones born this week: these have nothing to do with the article above, but they sure are cute! video of the same lamb batch (I’m just starting my video career, stay tuned for better footage in the future! -julia)