Malvaceae: A Family Portrait


Malvaceae: A Family Portrait
  • Posted February 27, 2015

The Malvaceae, or mallow, family is characterized by the highly recognizable flowers of the hibiscus plant, one of the universal symbols of tropical paradise. Most species in the family bear a similar flower, though often smaller and not as showy. Despite the ubiquity of the hibiscus-esque flower type within the family, the Malvaceae are a shockingly diverse bunch. From the weeds in your yard to the clothes you're wearing and the paper you read at breakfast, you've probably interacted with one of the Malvacea clan numerous times already today.

Okra, cotton, cacao (the source of chocolate), the bizarre Baobab trees of the African savannas and the balsa tree, whose ultra-lightweight wood was used in Thor Heyerdahl's raft when he sailed from South America to Polynesia in 1947, are all members of the Malvaceae family. It's counterintuitive to imagine the tiny wild malvas, sometimes called cheeseweed, that populate our backyards and roadsides belonging to the same family as massive trees like the baobab, but that's the beauty of botanical evolution. The original malvas of the Late Cretaceous period underwent astonishing mutations as they spread across the globe over the last 100 million years, resulting in the diversity we see today.

OkraCottonCacao pod on tree
Baobab TreeBalsa Tree
© mauroguanandi
Cheeseweed
malva sylvestri

In terms of common landscape plants, it's not just hibiscuses that the Malvaceae have bestowed on us; hollyhocks, lavatera, abutilon, confederate rose, flannel bush and linden trees all hail from the clan. In addition to cotton and cacao, there are many other economically important plants in the group, such as jute (think garden twine and burlap), durian (one of the most commonly consumed fruits in Southeast Asia) and kenaf, a tall stalky plant that has been used historically to make rope and is now becoming popular as an environmentally-friendly material for making newsprint and other paper products.

HollyhockLavateraAbutilonConfederate Rose
Flannel BushLinden TreeDurianKenaf

Then there's the wetland species of malva, known as marsh mallow. Commonly used as a treatment for sore throats in ancient times, it eventually became the basis of the sugary campfire snack named for it. The botanical property that soothed the throats of the ancients later provided the gooeyness for marshmallows and is also what gives okra its special texture that so many children love to hate. The technical term for the goo is mucilage, and it is one of the other defining characteristics of the Malvaceae tribe.

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Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Malvaceae: A Family Portrait