Flowery, easy Mallow
Written by Peter Dowdall for Irish Examiner
Peter Dowdall on a plant that gives its all for four to five seasons, then appears to give up the ghost.
Mallow, how could we be without one? Not talking about the marsh type, nor the town in County Cork, though we wouldn’t want to be without either of them. No, I am referring to that genus commonly referred to as Mallow, the Lavatera.
Such easy plants to grow, they thrive in our climate and seem to give so much— only to keel over after a short few years. For I don’t find them to be long-lasting but that’s okay as they take easily from cuttings during late summer and seedlings can often be found after a few short years, so you need never be short of a ready supply of replacements if and when your original succumbs and runs out of breath.
That’s the impression it gives when it does keel over — it’s like it puts all of its energy into producing flowers to keep the gardener and the bees happy and that it simply forgets about the other important things that a plant needs to do, namely staying alive.
You see, the Mallow can’t stop itself, it simply loves to flower and that’s what makes it such a fabulous addition to any garden. Add to that, the fact that these flowers are at their best in late summer and continuing well into autumn when much else is going or gone, then you begin to understand how great this beauty is to behold.
There are several varieties available and some of the most popular are: ‘Burgundy Wine’, which, of course isn’t Burgundy in colour at all, rather a rich, cerise pink, ‘Barnsley’, a very delicate, pale pink and ‘Blushing Bride’ such a pale pink as to be more or less white with a deep pink throat.
I have a seedling growing at home which came originally from my mother’s garden, she had scoured garden centres up and down the country for this particular variety for it is a particularly attractive variegated form.
Lavatera arborea Variegata will grow in a short few years to a height of 3m and I don’t really recommend cutting it back, for it doesn’t respond well to such pruning.
It doesn’t get tremendously wide in my experience. I have seen pictures of this variety growing with multi stems and covering an area of 1 m or more in diameter, but to me it’s a plant that produces only one or two stems and always quite high up on the plant, tending not to bush out too low down by the ground.
Bear all that in mind when deciding where to position it for what starts off to look like a nice compact perennial can very quickly look like the veritable 3m high sore thumb, if growing in the wrong place.
The leaves are, like most Lavateras, a mid-green colour but what makes this one different is, as the name suggests, the variegations on the foliage.
The leaves are splashed with a cream colour and some of the leaves are completely cream. There’s no way to put this nicely, it is a bit garish, no escaping that but that just means you have to be careful once more where you position it so that it doesn’t scream for all the wrong reasons.
Use its foliage to brighten up an otherwise drab part of the garden. Of course, considering where it came from and whose garden it grew in, the plant is far more important to me than just what it brings aesthetically. Gardens are living, changing tapestries and I have often written in the past about the importance of plants and the garden in keeping memories.
Every time I look at this Lavatera, I am immediately transported back to the time, many years ago now, but still like yesterday, when I accompanied Mum on her trek to hunt down the elusive plant.
It brings a smile to my face every time I look at it. Isn’t a plant that does that worth having no matter how it looks? My two little girls recently discovered how furry the leaves feel when brushed on the skin.
Not something that I had really noticed before, but when I saw them getting such delight from this most innocent and simple of pleasures, I had to stop to think where had the child in me gone?
How had I not noticed this before? It’s as children that we truly discover everything. They don’t care a jot whether the plant is herbaceous, evergreen, termed a shrub or a perennial or any of that boring stuff, no for them they learn everything they need to know from how it looks, sounds and feels; the important stuff.
A garden is more than a designed canvas, it needs personal touches and nuances for it to work properly. I speak on garden design and plants throughout the country but I always advise during my presentations that when you are creating your garden, you shouldn’t follow any rulebook to the nth degree as that leaves no room for individuality and every garden needs that input from its creator.
Work For The Weekend
If you live in a town house or an apartment and if your only outdoor space is a balcony, don’t think that you can’t have a garden and help local biodiversity. The impact and benefits of greening these urban spaces is huge. It doesn’t just have an aesthetic effect, it also benefits physical health, mental well-being and of course it helps to promote local biodiversity, such a vitally important factor, particularly in an urban environment.
It may well be that most or indeed, all of your garden will be in pots and containers but don’t let that stop you. Down to the garden centre now or perhaps recycle some old containers you have lying around and get planting. Keep an eye out for the Bord na Mona Growise social media campaign which is promoting gardening in these types of spaces and is full of useful information and tips to get started.