Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Mallows
Nature Bulletin No. 336-A   March 15, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Traveling across Illinois on a slow train one day, we saw a fat man leaning out of the open window beside him, watching the right-of-way. Occasionally he would grab something from the paper sack and toss it out. Grinning rather sheepishly at our curiosity, he explained: "I gather hollyhock seed. Maybe a bushel. Scatter it in likely spots everywhere 1 go. They look kinda pretty and friendly along the tracks". Bless the man ! We've been doing the same thing ever since, especially along the highways and byways.

One of our beloved and old-fashioned flowers, especially in sunny nooks or as a stately colorful border for gardens, the hollyhock, a native of China, was brought to Europe by the Crusaders and thence to America by the Pilgrims. Its straight and sturdy stalks, sometimes as much as nine feet tall, are clothed with rough dark-green leaves and studded with large showy flowers -- either single or double -- whose thin translucent petals seem to glow by their own light. Each plant bears blossoms all of the same color which may be pure white, yellow, lavender, red, maroon, a purple so deep it is almost black, or even variegated.

The hollyhock, along with about 800 other herbs, shrubs and small trees, belongs to the Mallow Family which, although rather small as plant families go, includes such unexpected but very important bedfellows as Cotton, Okra, and the Jute plant, of India, from which we get burlap, twine, gunny sacks and many such products. Other members are the Hibiscus, Marsh Mallow, Rose of Sharon, a few house plants such as "Flowering Maple" and some of our common garden weeds. Many of them bear large showy fivepetalled flowers but the distinctive feature of them all is a remarkable fusion of the stamens into a tube surrounding the stigma.

Hawaiians are proud of their "state" flower, the gorgeous Hibiscus, but we have two or three native kinds, the Rose Mallows, growing near streams, lakes and sloughs here in Cook County. The have pink or red flowers several inches across. Another relative, with rose-colored flowers, is found in only two places in the United States: on a gravelly island in the Kankakee River and one spot in western Virginia. Of 200 odd kinds of hibiscus, we are most familiar with the hardy shrub or small tree called Rose of Sharon, planted for its deep green foliage and its abundance of hollyhock-like flowers of dark red, purple or white. Marshmallow candy is now made from syrup, starch and gelatin beaten together but it used to be made from the sweet gummy bark on the roots of the Marsh Mallow. This waist-high perennial, with its showy pink flowers, is a native of European marshes which now grows wild in parts of the Eastern United States.

Velvetleaf -- also called Buttonweed or Butterprint -- with large fuzzy heart-shaped leaves and yellow flowers, is a fast-growing weed of late summer in the Corn Belt. It is a European mallow first described by the ancient Greeks. The sprawling Round-leafed Mallow with spicy round seedpods called "Cheeses" by farm children, is a serious garden pest. Okra, or Gumbo, is an African hibiscus cultivated as a vegetable in our Southern States and the West Indies. Its slender mucilaginous seedpods, six or more inches long, are gathered green for gumbo soups and stews. We all know King Cotton, man's most important fiber plant for 3000 years. Sea Island cotton has yellow flowers but the upland cottons, which furnish most of our crops, bear creamy white flowers which change to pink and then deep red. A cotton field in bloom is something to remember.

So was the famous old Showboat -- Cotton Blossom.

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