From Forest Floor to Fork: How to Identify, Grow & Use Musk Mallow

From the backyard in an urban landscape to the shady understory of the forest floor, wild edible plants abound. In truth, we are surrounded by food and medicine that is readily available to us – the key is becoming familiar with such plants, one by one. 

One lovely plant to become acquainted with is the edible musk mallow. If it isn’t already growing in your area, you can introduce it to your garden as a beautiful perennial vegetable. As a relative to common mallow, musk mallow is delectable with its tasty flowers and edible leaves. 

To get you well-informed about this plant, we’ll cover what it is, how to identify it, its edibility, and how to grow it in your garden.

What Is Musk Mallow?

Malva moschata

Musk mallow (Malva moschata) is an herbaceous to evergreen perennial belonging to the Malvaceae or Mallow family. It is native to Europe and Northern Africa and has naturalized in parts of North America, specifically the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes regions, and the Northeast down to North Carolina. 

It earned its common name, musk mallow, because of the musky smell of its flowers. Although its name doesn’t necessarily stir up one’s appetite, its flavor does not resemble its smell, so it isn’t musky in taste. 

It prefers disturbed habitats, and you can find it growing in full sun to partial shade along forest edges, open woodlands, vacant lots, roadsides, hiking and walking trails, and brushy areas. 

How to Identify

Malva moschata plant s2320262355

Although it’s closely related to common mallow (Malva neglecta) as they share the same genus, the plant is easy to distinguish from its more abundant (and edible) cousin. 

To start, they have differing growth habits as musk mallow grows erect more like hollyhock, while common mallow spreads along the ground. Musk mallow also has larger, pink flowers, while mallow has smaller, white-to-pale-pink flowers. 

It can grow about 50 inches or a little over four feet tall with several stems and flowers. The stem grows from basal leaves, which are different in shape than the alternate leaves along the stem. 

The basal leaves (and lower stem leaves) have more of a rounded margin, are about 2-3 inches across, and are palmately lobed, usually with 5 major lobes. 

As the leaves grow along the stem, they become more deeply lobed with progressively shorter petioles. The major lobes on the basal leaves become leaflets as the leaves change from simple at the base to palmately divided along the stem. The leaflets are deeply lobed themselves.

Because of the change in the leaves as musk mallow grows, one plant can have several various leaf shapes. 

Musk mallow flowers bloom from late June to early July through September. The symmetrical flower is about 2 inches across with five pink (occasionally white) petals with white vein streaks. The flower petals narrow at their base, and the tip is notched in the center. 

The fruits of musk mallow closely resemble that of its mallow relatives – a flattened green seed head that looks like a wheel. However, its fruit is unique in that it is surrounded by papery sepals much larger than the fruit.

When the seed is left to ripen and harden, it turns brown, and the sepals turn a creamy white-yellow or brown color. 

As far as I’m aware, there are no poisonous look-alikes. While this makes it a quality plant for the budding forager to try, it’s still imperative to correctly identify any wild plants, including those without any poisonous look-alikes, before you ingest them. 

Edibility & Preparation

Malva moschata tincture oil

The flowers, tender young leaves, and green fruits are edible on musk mallow, both raw and cooked. Some wild food authors claim that this mallow plant isn’t as good as some of the other mallows because the parts get tough sooner – specifically the older leaves.

Nonetheless, the large, tasty flowers are wonderful as a garden or trail snack, and they can be added to salads or used as a lovely garnish on dessert. The taste of musk mallow flowers is similar to fresh lettuce, and the newly bloomed flowers that haven’t been pollinated yet have an added sweetness.

Other foragers relish the flower bud clusters as the “tastiest” part of the plant. 

The young leaves are mild in taste and share the same mucilaginous quality as the other mallows do. This means they can be used to help thicken sauces and soups. Musk mallow leaves can also be steamed or sauteed as you would with cultivated leafy greens. 

Musk mallow fruits, also called “cheeses” as they resemble cheese rounds, can be eaten raw or cooked. They produce a similar mucilaginous texture as the leaves, so they can be used similarly to thicken soups or sauces.

How to Grow

Musk mallow is an attractive addition to the garden, especially for cottage, prairie, and meadow-type gardens. This easy-to-grow plant is not only a beautiful ornamental but also a perennial vegetable, making it highly valuable in the tended landscape. 

Its showy blooms attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and its 2-4 feet height makes a lovely backdrop for smaller garden plants. 

The plant can grow in zones 3-8 but prefers more temperate climates for which it’s native to. It is best started from seed and sown in fall or early spring. It grows well in average, well-draining garden soil in full sun to part shade.

It will readily self-seed if given its preferred conditions. 

Remove old flowers to encourage more blooms – or leave them if you wish to harvest the green fruits to eat. It doesn’t need fertilizing, perhaps just a side-dressing of organic compost in the spring. Some gardeners claim that it shouldn’t be fertilized as it can accumulate harmful levels of nitrate in its leaves. 

Musk mallow isn’t prone to pests or diseases but may be affected by powdery mildew or hollyhock rust. 

From the Wild to the Table

It’s truly incredible how many wild, edible plants are around us – one just needs the foraging eyes to see and the important know-how to eat them safely. But I promise you, once you start on the wild foraging path, you won’t be able to stop, and the world will be a brighter, more vibrant place because of it. 

This is a great plant to identify for beginner foragers if you live in the areas where it grows – it’s easy to distinguish from other plants and doesn’t have any poisonous look-alikes. It’s also mild and pleasant in taste. 

If it doesn’t grow in your area, musk mallow makes a truly lovely addition to the garden with its large pink flowers and tasty young leaves. Whether you wish to grow it solely as an ornamental or as a perennial vegetable, you’ll be sure to fall in love with this graceful beauty. 

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As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.