mallow, common name for members of the Malvaceae, a family of herbs and shrubs distributed over most of the world and especially abundant in the American tropics. Tropical species sometimes grow as small trees. The family is characterized by often mucilaginous sap and by showy, five-part flowers with a prominent column of fused stamens. The true mallows (genus Malva ) are native to north temperate regions of the Old World, although many species have escaped from cultivation and become naturalized in the United States. North American species, sometimes cultivated and most common in the South and West, include the false mallows (genus Malvastrum ) and the rose, or swamp, mallows (genus Hibiscus ) found in marshy areas across the country. Introduced species of hibiscus include the rose of Sharon, or shrubby althea ( H. syriacus ), a popular ornamental bush or small tree native to Asia, and okra, or gumbo ( H. esculentus ), native to Africa, whose mucilaginous pods are used as a vegetable and in soups and stews. Alothea is an Old World genus. The hollyhock ( A. rosea ), the most popular ornamental of the family, is a Chinese perennial now widely naturalized and cultivated as a biennial or annual in many varieties of diverse colors. A. officinalis is the marsh mallow, a name sometimes used also for the larger-blossomed rose mallows. The root of the true marsh mallow, a native of Europe, has been used medicinally. It was formerly used for the confection marshmallow, which is now usually made from syrup, gelatin, and other ingredients. The tropical and subtropical flowering maple genus Abutilon, named for the maplelike foliage of some species, includes several house and bedding ornamentals. Some Asian species yield a fiber known as China jute—e.g., the velvetweed ( A. theophrasti ), called also Indian mallow and velvetleaf for the texture of its foliage. This plant, introduced to the United States as an ornamental, has become a noxious weed. Economically, the most important plant in the family is cotton (genus Gossypium ), with species native to both the Old and New World and cultivated independently in both areas from early times. The mallow family is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Malvales.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.