Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The mallow family

 The mallows belong to a large and important family of plants which are more abundant in the tropics than in colder climates. 

About a thousand species have been discovered and it is claimed that they are all rich in mucilage a substance produced by most plants and some microorganisms which is thought to aid in water storage and seed germination, and to act as a membrane thickener and food reserve. Mucilage is edible, but tastes rather bland and is used in medicine for its demulcent properties. 

Traditionally marshmallows were made from the extract of the mucilaginous root of the marshmallow plant and due to the demulcent nature of the extract, worked as a cough suppressant but marsh mallows sold today in sweet shops do not contain any marshmallow at all.

Most of the mallows have been used as food, and are mentioned by early classic writers in this connexion. Mallow was an esculent vegetable among the Romans, a dish of marsh mallow was one of their delicacies. In France, the Middle East and North Africa mallows are used as salads.

Several species of mallow are found in the Maltese countryside. 

The least mallow (ħobbejża tal-warda żgħira) which flowers from late winter to early summer has small pale lilac-blue or mauve flowers. It is common in fields and along waysides. 

The tree mallow (ħobbejża tas-siġar) grows up to 3 metres high. It is common in some areas especially along the coast.  It has lilac flowers with purple veins at the base.

The common mallow (ħobbejża tar-raba) is also found throughout the Maltese countryside. The flowers which are pink or purple with dark veins can be seen between February and May. 

Another common species is the large-flowered mallow (ħobbejża tal-warda kbira) which is in flower between mid-spring to early summer. It has large bright satiny pink occasionally white flowers.

This article was published in The Times on 15 April 2009.

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