Marsh Mallows

Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) ~ Big Thicket

I titled my previous post “Marsh, Mellow” as a bit of a joke. Long before I was allowed to make s’mores without adult supervision, I pronounced the name of one of the classic treat’s primary ingredients — marshmallows — as marsh ‘mellows.’ The sight of a marsh on a mellow afternoon brought it all back, and a title was born.

Over time, I’ve lost my taste for the confection, but the pronunciation lingered. Then, I met the Malvaceae: the family of plants known as mallows. Our modern marshmallows actually are the descendents of a treat made from the root of the marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis), a plant  found in Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa.

A. officinalis isn’t native to North America, but a multitude of mallows are, including the lovely swamp rose mallow at the top of this page. Surrounded  by an interesting Big Thicket plant known as ten-angled pipewort (Eriocaulon decangulare), it’s also common closer to the coast, where it’s often found along ditches and in other low-lying areas.

This mallow blooms in pink as well as white, but I’d seen only the white until I visited the Watson Rare Plant Preserve in Warren, Texas, where a single pink flower was in bloom.

Saltmarsh mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) ~ Brazoria County

Michael Eason’s field guide to Texas wildflowers notes that another pink beauty, the saltmarsh mallow, is considered uncommon. I wouldn’t have imagined that, since the flowers are plentiful in this area, and sometimes line roadside ditches for miles. The unusual scientific name honors Vincenz Franz Kosteletzky, a botanist who worked in Prague in the 1800s.

Neches River rose mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx) ~ Tyler County

Unlike the previous mallows, the beautiful Neches River rose mallow is considered rare. I’ve seen it only twice: once at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center in Nacogdoches, and once in Tyler County. In both instances, the flower was facing downward and not easily accessible, but enlarging the photo will give a sense of the beautiful details in its center.

Lindheimer’s sida (Sida lindheimeri) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Lindheimer’s sida, a flower as often seen in the Texas hill country as at the coast, also belongs to the mallow family. It prefers drier conditions than some of the marsh mallows, but it often grows very near to them, especially at the edges of roads.

Known as the father of Texas botany, Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer must have loved this tiny mallow; his daughter, Sida Rosalia Lindheimer (1860-1943) bore its name. In the 1960s, a granddaughter, Sida Martin, gave the Lindheimer home to the New Braunfels Conservation Society.  Today, a variety of mallows grow in its gardens.


Comments always are welcome.

50 thoughts on “Marsh Mallows

      1. In truth, I could look at this post a hundred times and answer the question, “Which is your favorite?” a different way each time. I love all of these, but I will admit that central column of the Neches River rose mallow is a knockout. Some day, I’ll find one that’s more conveniently located for a photo; I’d love to get some really good shots of it.

        1. The Neches River mallow is on my to-see list!

          And interesting information about the botanist Kosteletzky! I’ve always wondered about that name.

    1. The saltmarsh mallow opens very early in the morning, and is lovely with golden sunlight playing on the dewdrops that sometimes cover it. It’s quite a hairy plant, too. I love the fuzzy little buds, which I have tucked away to feature at another time.

  1. Beautiful mallows (as well as the photos).

    The Neches River rose mallow reminds me a bit of Hibiscus Insularis. Well, actually nothing like it – I just thought of that Hibiscus when I looked at your image.

    I like the Swamp rose mallow in the first image the best. I like the purity and simplicity of the white.

    1. I was pleased to find that swamp rose mallow in the midst of the tiny white plants also known as bog buttons or hat pins. ‘Hat pin’ is a perfect name for them; the combination of very long stems and tiny little flowers do look exactly like the hat pins I remember from childhood.

      I found an image of the Hibiscus insularis from Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. The resemblance is clear; no wonder you thought of it. I see that it’s considered a rare and endangered plant, too. I thought this article was fascinating.

      1. Thanks for the link, Linda. Jerry (of the link you gave me) is a regular presenter on Gardening Australia on TV on Friday night.

  2. A beautiful plant indeed. As it concerns birds, I always advise novices and students to use their field guide as exactly that, a guide. Sometimes there are outright factual errors, different print runs of the same book may affect the colour of the plates, and information about status and distribution can quickly become out of date. New populations can be discovered or more likely, unfortunately, habitat has been destroyed and rarity increased. You must be delighted to know where to find the flower in abundance. I am sure that Ferdinand and the two Sidas would rejoice along with you.

    1. Beyond the factors you’ve mentioned, there’s also the fact that nature’s remarkably unpredictable. Plants that have appeared in abundance at the same time, in the same place, for years at a time can suddenly disappear. On the other hand, I recently had the experience of seeing a favorite wildflower I’d never seen at the Brazoria refuge suddenly pop up: more about that later.

      Of course, even plants that are relatively scarce in their native range can be “locally common.” That’s surely the case with the salt marsh mallow. Two years ago, it amused me to see an entire vacant city lot filled with the flowers, miles away from the coast. I never figured out what allowed them to set up shop there, but that’s part of the fun.

      According to Flora of North America, Sida lindheimeri was named by Engelmann and Gray in 1845 — fifteen years before Lindheimer’s daughter was born. It’s one of those delightful details that makes the history of botany so interesting.

    1. Until I did some reading for this post, I’d not realized that hollyhocks are part of the mallow family, too, along with Turk’s cap and Pavonia, or rock rose. I had to laugh at Eason’s just slightly prim comment about the rock rose. He writes, “It is peculiar that the common name swamp -mallow is used, as this species does not live in such habitats.” So there!

  3. I was happy to see this post and these mallows can hardly be called mellow. All are luscious blooms. I am envious of all your preserves in Texas. Of course, LBJ is the one best known nationally, but apparently there approaches no end to the possible places to visit there. And then there are the natural sites that are not part of a reserve but still remain wild. I love New England and our forests and meadows but am a fair jealous too. We have a Lady Baltimore Hibiscus in our front yard garden but that is something well manipulated compared to these wonderful natural species.
    Very nice informative post, Linda. Thanks.

    1. It’s funny — I often envy Steve, who has the riches of central Texas to explore. All of those waterfalls, and rocky paths, and creeks! One of the problems I have is that there are so many directions to go, I always feel as though I’m missing something. Certainly, I did this year. All the time I spent in East Texas meant I missed the height of the bloom for some of my ocal favorite flowers, and I missed spring in the hill country entirely. I think “embarassment of riches” is the phrase that applies.

      Hibiscus thrive here, of course, and there’s no end to the colors and styles they come in. Many are beautiful — a friend has a yellow double hibiscus that’s glorious — but I enjoy the fun of finding the natives where they’ve decided to plant themselves.

  4. These are beautiful. The swamp rose version is perhaps the plainest, but I like your shot with the little white globes hovering around the flower in attendance.

    1. I think that’s my favorite of the photos — partly because I was entranced by those tiny white orbs, and partly because I’d nearly given up trying to get a decent photo of them when I found them surrounding the mallow. Apparently ‘pipewort’ is the older common name, but ‘hat pin’ tickles me. It’s such a perfect description for the plant. I’ve got some closeups I’ll post with some other east Texas photos; they’re really delightful.

  5. These mallows are really beautiful — they remind me a bit of something called a maple flower I bought yesterday at the market. Couldn’t resist, though I’ll kill it within three weeks, I’m sure. I always do.

    They will always be pronounced marsh-mellows to me! I love them in cocoa. Like you, I’m not that big on s’mores anymore, though I’ll not turn one down at a campfire. I have a friend who makes them in the microwave. To each their own!

    1. There’s a reason your maple flower reminds you of these. The ‘maple flower’ is in the genus Abutilon, which is in the mallow family. We have a few native flowers that belong in the genus, like A. wrightii, or Wright’s Indian mallow — a very pretty yellow flower. I had no idea what you’d bought, so I went looking, and found this great site that has all sorts of information.

      I’ve been pondering microwave s’mores, and I must say — microwaves have their uses, but I don’t think that’s one! The best thing about marshmallows always was seeing how many times you could toast the same one, burning the outside, eating it, and then sticking it back in the fire. No microwave can equal that pleasure.

    1. We do, indeed. Many of the introduced tropical species thrive in gardens here, too: at least, until the inevitable hard freeze comes along and discourages them a bit.

  6. I can see the family resemblance between the mallows and the hibiscus. I call them “marshmellows” too. One of the words I learned by ear and not by eye.

    1. It seems that most of us are ‘marshmellowers.’ After some experimentation, I decided part of the reason is that ‘marshmallow’ is harder to say: at least, it is for me. I have to really concentrate to get it to come out as ‘mallow’ — it’s much easier with the plants.

  7. I had no idea until you told me that marshmallow descended from a medicinal plant, Linda. But, even though I know it’s supposed to be pronounced “mallow,” most people here (including me!) call them “mellows.” I suspect it’s a regional pronunciation. But did you know Ancient Egyptians were the first to enjoy marshmallows as early as 2000 B.C.??

    1. I didn’t know that, about the Egyptians. I only knew that the use of the plant has a long history. I do think that somewhere along the line the recipe for our modern marshmallows got changed. They’re not as good now as I remember them, and haven’t been for some years. Who knows that they’re making them from now? I have a feeling they have a shelf life longer than I do!

    1. I’m rarely in favor of banning things, but I’ll agree with you that marshmallows belong near the top of unnecessary “food products.” What’s funny is remembering the 1950s and 1960s, when many so-called “salads” involved Jello™ and marshmallows. There was a famous one popular at ladies’ bridge clubs; it involved mixing cherry gelatin, maraschino cherries, nuts, pineapple, and marshmallows, and then freezing it. There are some foods you just don’t forget!

    1. I think it’s great that the mallow family manages to please both gardeners and native plant enthusiasts. Between the mallows and the morning glories, everyone should be able to find something to appreciate — and that’s easy to grow!

  8. I receive your posts via WordPress reader and also through my email. When I first got notification of this post, I thought: why is WordPress sending another notification of a previous post. Well, I should read more thoroughly, I guess!

    I love mallows! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mallow that I didn’t find beautiful and your selections only cement that trend. Nice post and for what it’s worth, I called marshmallows, ‘mellows’ too!

    1. It’s not your reading skills that are at issue — it’s my weird mind that sometimes just can’t stop! Maybe it comes from having a dad who loved word play and puns; I started early.

      I’ve come to really enjoy the smaller flowers, like the sida, that I didn’t realize were in the mallow family. There are so many of them: even the orange woolly globemallow that I found in the Rockport cemetery. I took the time to look through the Malvaceae sections in Eason’s book, and there were some other surprises there.

  9. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood the connection between the plant and the treat. I enjoyed this post – very informative. I never would have guessed that the Lindheimer’s sida was in the mallow family.

    1. There are surprises everywhere. Here’s another oddity I found. Michael Eason’s field guide is divided by color, and then within each color by family. I was browsing the Malvaceae in each color when I realized there wasn’t a single blue or purple member of that family shown. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any — no field guide can show everything. But for blue, trumpet-shaped flowers, it seems we’ll have to depend on the Convolvulaceae!

  10. Far from you, I grew up on Long Island pronouncing the word as marshmellow, too. As a kid, I had no idea what a mallow is, and I suspect plenty of other people didn’t, either. That would explain the folk-etymology conversion of mallow to mellow.

    Sidas are interesting because individual petals are asymmetric but the flowers as a whole exhibit rotational symmetry.

    1. What you say about the sidarian symmetry may explain another of the flower’s common names, which I only recently learned: fanpetals.

      As for the sweet treat, it’s also true that (at least for me) ‘marshmellow’ is much easier to pronounce than ‘marshmallow.’ It’s odd that it’s not so hard when two words are involved rather than one: i.e., marsh mallow.

  11. Lindheimer was such an incredible botanist who identified so many plants. I have a prairie a plant called Lindhemer’s Daisy that blooms in April. It is also interesting that a granddaughter gave the old home to a worthy society.

    1. It’s really a lovely home, too. It’s more a cottage than a house, although it seems very comfortable from the photos I’ve seen of the interior. I’ve visited, but haven’t been inside; I only admired the gardens. I think your Lindheimer’s daisy might be what’s also called Lindheimer’s star — is it yellow, with five petals? He certainly does have his name attached to a passel of plants. He’s one of those historical figures I wish I could have known.

      1. The plant is yellow and I think it has five petals but honestly I have never inspected it. I will look it up in Google. I have not been commenting because I had no operational computer among other things going kaput. I hope to get back into the swing of things soon with this HP Windows 10 which I very much dislike.

        1. Though it’s probably small comfort, you’re certainly not alone in disliking Windows 10. I baby my Windows 7Pro as much as one can baby a computer. I have my fingers crossed that it lasts a very long time, and I have the telephone number of the person who can fix it if things go wrong very close at hand. Just now, everything’s operational around here, except I’m waiting to get a crown on a tooth. I needed two, and one fit. We’re on try #3 for the second one. I asked the dentist if it was the Three Bears approach: one was too small, the next was too large, and we’re hoping the next one is just right.

  12. These are so nice because of their subdued light. I love it that the native ‘swamp rose mallow’ name defies the ‘Amapola’ one, the latter referring to the non-native one: ‘Hibiscus rosa-sinensis’ and looking so similar. ‘Hibiscus rosa-sinensis’ is also called ‘Chinese hibiscus’, ‘China rose’, ‘Hawaiian hibiscus’, or ‘Amapola’. Their origin is said to be oriental, but they are so widespread. There is the other non-native: Hibiscus syriacus, also known as the Korean rose, or ‘Rose of Sharon’. The tropics is full of them, and the U.S. also. They’re not marsh dwellers, and they’re hardy, ornamental plants.

    ‘The Rose of Sharon’ name is actually a mistake from a translation in the Bible.
    See the story here.
    Now I know about ‘Althaea officinalis’, or ‘marsh-mallow’, thanks to you!

    1. I went digging around, and found a photo taken deep in some east Texas woods that I think might be Hibiscus syriacus. I have the photo labeled “Althea syriaca,” but I don’t have any idea where I came up with that name. I don’t see it listed as a synonym anywhere. At any rate, I’m pretty sure the flower’s the one often called Rose of Sharon. Even though I found it in the woods, it was on private property where it made sense that it might have been planted by the owners, and spread.

      I found yet another hibiscus in east Texas last weekend: the pineland hibiscus (Hibiscus aculeatus). It’s in exactly one county in Texas according to the USDA map, but relatively common in the Florida panhandle. I didn’t get very good photos of it, but there were lots of buds, so I may get another chance!

    2. I just read the link about the Rose of Sharon, and had to smile at this line: “Etymologists have tentatively linked the biblical חבצלת to the words בצל beṣel, meaning ‘bulb’, and חמץ ḥāmaṣ, which is understood as meaning either ‘pungent’ or ‘splendid’.” Translation is hard!

      1. At least ‘Sharon’ is correct in that it’s ‘The Sharon plain’, which is the central section of the coastal plain of Israel. I’ll try to look for Hibiscus aculeatus around here. Thanks for the information.

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