Years ago, plant choices were limited, so a gardener didn’t have much difficulty making decisions about what to grow. Over time, plant breeders have been so busy developing new varieties and hybrids that some of the old species varieties are often hard to come by today. Whether an annual or perennial, there will be many varieties from which to choose, but you can usually find the old species variety with some searching.
One old-fashioned flower that has seen numerous new varieties developed is mallow. It grows at least a metre and a half in height, is well branched, and is a useful plant for the back of a perennial border. Its sturdy stalks have a rigidly upright growth habit and the lower 30 cm or so of the plants are rather bare so when it is planted near the back of a border the plants in front will hide the bare lower stalks.
The flowers are funnel shaped or cup shaped, and usually pale pink, with each bloom having the five separate petals typical of all mallow varieties. The flowers are somewhat fragrant and very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. Mallow is a coarse-textured plant with rough leaves (it is a relative of the hollyhock and has similar foliage), so it provides good contrast to the smoother leaves of companion plants in the border. Common mallow will bloom from early summer right up until frost.
Happy in any type of soil, it is drought tolerant but performs better when supplied with adequate amounts of moisture — but it doesn’t like wet feet so should be planted where there is good drainage. It requires at least part sun and will perform well in a full-sun location; it puts on a decent display when it is in the shade for part of the day. Common mallow is a low-maintenance, easy-to-grow plant that is not bothered by insect or disease problems. It self-seeds so lots of new seedlings are available for use each spring.
If you find common mallow too rangy and coarse, choose one of the newer varieties. These more recent introductions are not as hardy as common mallow and are generally rated as Zone 4. However, because they self-seed and the plants come true from seed, you won’t have to purchase new plants if they winterkill, and flowers appear on first-year plants by midsummer.
One nice variety is mallow “Malva,” which has lavender blooms with distinctive purple stripes. It is a shorter, more compact plant than common mallow (most newer varieties are) and grows only about 50 cm tall. “Malva” looks great planted in drifts to provide a big display of colour in the middle or toward the front of a border. The plants have the usual upright form but are not as prone to being bare at the bottom as common mallow. Although plants will look their best when the spent blooms are removed, some of the dead flowers should be allowed to remain on the plants in order to set seed.
Another whole group of new mallow varieties — often labelled Sidalcea — are also great. This plant, sometimes referred to as checker mallow, has much smaller but more numerous flowers and is more multi-stemmed than “Malva.” The plants are often mistaken for penstemon. Sidalcea comes in an array of colours that include purple, lavender and red (a good red variety is “Brilliant”).
The plants form nice clumps of foliage from which emerge innumerable flowering stems. The flowers are produced in abundance along the length of these upright stems, creating a block of colour when several plants are grouped together.
Sidalcea is not as coarse looking as other mallows and can be used closer to the front of a border. It grows about the same height as “Malva” or in drifts toward the middle of the bed. The plants will self-seed so often gardeners simply leave some of the seedlings here and there in the border and let them bloom where they have grown, removing only those encroaching on other plants’ space. Another variety of Sidalcea, “Elsie Heugh,” is often called “Prairie Mallow.” The colour of its flowers is reminiscent of the blooms of common mallow — a soft pink. The blooms are held above the foliage on sturdy stems and the individual blooms are slightly fringed.
Whether you are in need of a tall plant for the back of a border or shorter plants to fill in gaps in a bed, varieties of mallow/Sidalcea might be just the plants you are looking for.