Malva verticillata ‘Crispa’ is a variation of Chinese mallow, a plant that was cultivated more than 2,000 years ago, before the start of the Han Dynasty in China. Hardy to Zone 6, this plant readily self-seeds here in Maine and can reach at least 9 feet or more in height in a single season. Unlike many mallows, its flowers are small, white and not at all showy, tucked snugly into the leaf axil. They are, however, plentiful, producing seed pods up and down the stem. In Europe, M. verticillata is grown as a leaf vegetable to replace lettuce in salads, and in China, it has been used medicinally for centuries, including treatment for renal disorders. If you look it up online, you will find that here in the States, it is offered as a diet tea for its laxative effect. After growing ‘Crispa’ with its deeply curled leaves in my vegetable garden for nearly 20 years, I can say that I have eaten those leaves only a few times. It has become quite the draw for Japanese beetles, which ravage the plant once the first wave of insects emerge. While it may stunt the growth of some leaves, the end result is that the beetles tend not to stray far from the malva, making them easy to sweep into a water-filled bucket, and keeping other plants nearly beetle-free. Pictured is a late-season malva plant that sprouted toward the end of summer, missing the waves of beetles that might have attacked it; as you can see, the leaves are massive.
– Janine Pineo