This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Very large, clear rose pink, sometimes white, often with crimson centre, 4 to 7 in. across, solitary, or clustered on peduncles at summit of stems. Calyx 5-cleft, subtended by numerous narrow bractlets; 5 large, veined petals; stamens united into a valvular column bearing anthers on the outside for much of its length; 1 pistil partly enclosed in the column, and with five button-tipped stigmatic branches above. Stem: 4 to 7 ft. tall, stout, from perennial root. Leaves: 3 to 7 in. long, tapering, pointed, egg-shaped, densely white, downy beneath; lower leaves, or sometimes all, lobed at middle.
Preferred Habitat - Brackish marshes, riversides, lake shores, saline situations.
Flowering Season - August - September.
Distribution - Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico, westward to Louisiana; found locally in the interior, but chiefly along Atlantic seaboard.
Stately ranks of these magnificent flowers, growing among the tall sedges and "cat-tails" of the marshes, make the most insensate traveller exclaim at their amazing loveliness. To reach them one must don rubber boots and risk sudden seats in the slippery ooze; nevertheless, with spade in hand to give one support, it is well worth while to seek them out and dig up some roots to transplant to the garden. Here, strange to say, without salt soil or more water than the average garden receives from showers and hose, this handsomest of our wild flowers soon makes itself delightfully at home under cultivation. Such good, deep earth, well enriched and moistened, as the hollyhock thrives in, suits it perfectly. Now we have a better opportunity to note how the bees suck the five nectaries at the base of the petals and collect the abundant pollen of the newly opened flowers, which they perforce transfer to the five button-shaped stigmas intentionally impeding the entrance to older blossoms. Only its cousin the hollyhock, a native of China, can vie with the rose-mallow's decorative splendor among the shrubbery; and the Rose of China (Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis), cultivated in greenhouses here, eclipse it in the beauty of the individual blossom. This latter flower, whose superb scarlet corolla stains black, is employed by the Chinese married women, it is said, to discolor their teeth; but in the West Indies it sinks to even greater ignominy as a dauber for blacking shoes!
Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis), a name frequently misapplied to the swamp rose-mallow, is properly given to a much smaller pink flower, measuring only an inch and a half across at the most, and a far rarer one, being a naturalized immigrant from Europe found only in the salt marshes from the Massachusetts coast to New York. It is also known as Wymote. This is a bushy, leafy plant, two to four feet high, and covered with velvety down as a protection against the clogging of its pores by the moisture arising from its wet retreats. Plants that live in swamps must "perspire" freely and keep their pores open. From the marsh mallow's thick roots the mucilage used in confectionery is obtained, a soothing demulcent long esteemed in medicine. Another relative, the okra or gumbo plant of vegetable gardens (Hibiscus esculentus), has mucilage enough in its narrow pods to thicken a potful of soup. Its pale yellow, crimson-centred flowers are quite as beautiful as any hollyhock, but not nearly so conspicuous, because of the plant's bushy habit of growth. In spite of its name, the Althaea of our gardens, or Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus Syriacus), is not so closely allied to Althaea officinalis as to the swamp rose-mallow.
Another immigrant from Europe and Asia sparingly naturalized in waste places and roadsides in Canada, the United States, and Mexico is the Common High Mallow, Cheeseflower, or Round Dock (Malva sylvestris). Its purplish-rose flowers, from which the French have derived their word mauve, first applied to this plant, appear in small clusters on slender pedicels from the leaf axils along a leafy, rather weak, but ascending stem, maybe only a foot high, or perhaps a yard, throughout the summer months. The leaf, borne on a petiole two to six inches long, is divided into from five to nine shallow, angular, or rounded saw-edged lobes. Country children eat unlimited quantities of the harmless little circular, flattened "cheeses" or seed vessels, a characteristic of the genus Malva. Since the flower invites a great number of insects to feast on its nectar, secreted in five little pits (protected for them from the rain by hairs at the base of the petals), and compels its visitors to wipe off pollen brought from the pyramidal group of anthers in a newly opened blossom to the exserted, radiating stigmas of older ones, the mallow produces more cheeses than all the dairies of the world. So rich is its store of nectar that the hive-bee, shut out from a legitimate entrance to the flower when it closes in the late afternoon, climbs up the outside of the calyx, and inserting his tongue between the five petals, empties the nectaries one after another - intelligent rogue that he is!
The Low, Dwarf, or Running Mallow (M. rotundifolia), a very common little weed throughout our territory, Europe, and Asia, depends scarcely at all upon insects to transfer its pollen, as might be inferred from its unattractive pale blue to white flowers, that measure only about half an inch across. In default of visitors, its pollen-laden anthers, instead of drooping to get out of the way of the stigmas, as in the showy high mallow, remain extended so as to come in contact with the rough, sticky sides of the long curling stigmas. The leaves of this spreading plant, which are nearly round, with five to nine shallow, saw-edged lobes, are thin, and furnished with long petioles; whereas the flowers which spring from their axils keep close to the main stem. Usually there are about fifteen rounded carpels that go to make up the Dutch, doll, or fairy cheeses, as the seed vessels are called by children. Only once is the mallow mentioned in the Bible, and then as food for the most abject and despised poor (Job xxx. 4); but as eighteen species of mallow grow in Palestine, who is the higher critic to name the species eaten?
Occasionally we meet by the roadside in Canada, the Eastern, Middle, and Southern States pink, sometimes white, flowers, about two inches across, growing in small clusters at the top of a stem a foot or two high, the whole plant emitting a faint odor of musk. If the stem leaves are deeply divided into several narrow, much-cleft segments, and the little cheeses are densely hairy, we may safely call the plant Musk Mallow (M. moschata), and expect to find it blooming throughout the summer.
Swamp Rose-Mallow. (Hibiscus Moscheufos.)