The Dry Garden: For tropical impressions on <br> a desert canvas, paint the landscape with mallows

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Few plants better connote the sheer luxuriance of the California dream as hibiscus. It comes from a clan of plants known as mallows native to the tropics, where, University of Texas botanist Paul A. Fryxell says, this family finds its “greatest richness.”

Fryxell is an authority on mallows, a family that he says has more than 100 genera with cousins around the world, capable of tolerating situations as diverse as the high climes of the Andes, hot and dry Palm Desert and the Mediterranean climate of coastal California.


Talk to Fryxell and it soon becomes clear why hibiscuses in Southern California needn’t be a guilty pleasure, even though they’re tropical. Thanks to their robust root systems, many can go with only occasional deep watering during dry season. Once established, they are happiest when treated like trees.

For Californians, he also points to our native mallows. Those who haven’t expanded from hibiscus to native globe mallow (Sphaeralcea), bush mallow (Abutilon), chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus) or tree mallow (Lavatera) have a heady pleasure before them. No plants do a better job of bringing almost year-round pointillist beauty to a garden landscape.

Beyond their water needs, which are so low that many may be partnered with cactus, California mallows differ from hibiscuses in one profound way: subtlety. Compared with the showgirl flair of their tropical cousins, native mallows are often best used as background or fill, where they offer clouds of velvety gray-green foliage spangled with flowers in white, yellow, apricot, pink, lavender or deep purple.

Once established, they need little if any irrigation. But give the hardiest desert specimens what Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden research associate Barbara Eisenstein calls “a kick” of summer water, and plants such as globe mallow can replicate the monsoonal flush of blooms that she has seen in Joshua Tree. To read more about mallows, click to the jump ...

Mallows have too many overlapping common names to forgo using the botanical ones without risking hopeless confusion. Globe mallow’s proper name is Sphaeralcea ambigua. (The tongue-twisting genus name is pronounced suf-rall-si-uh.)

A favorite Sphaeralcea of demanding Arroyo Grande nurseryman David Fross is the new hybrid Childerley, right, whose pale apricot flowers are “quite beautiful.” But it is the white-flowered La Luna that sets the pulses racing of Eisenstein in Pasadena and nurseryman Troy McGregor of Garden Natives in Contra Costa County. McGregor commends this introduction from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for use along raised terraces or walkways, where the plant will spill over a ledge.


If, like me, you have confused the orange-blossomed globe mallow with the yellow-flowering Indian mallow, Eisenstein will steer your gaze toward the foliage and the wood. Indian mallow, Abutilon palmeri is a different genus for a reason. “It has big, soft leaves,” she says. The Sphaeralcea, a “sub-shrub” because it is less woody, “has a much smaller, less velvety leaf.”

Height can vary dramatically among mallows. Take Lavatera assurgentiflora. “It’s a big plant,” Fross says. “You really have to have the spot for it. It will get up to 8 feet tall by 10 feet.” That explains why one of its common names is tree mallow.

Lavatera assurgentiflora prefers the coast, and its blossoms run to a deep burgundy. A hybrid ironically named Purissima has purple flowers so seductive that they are bachelor pads for bees. Given its scale, Fross recommends tree mallow for the back of a bed. There will be no problem enjoying the flowers from a distance. “Blooming is almost continuous,” he says. “It goes through a huge flowering, blooms itself out, stops for a month and comes back.”

A Mediterranean cousin, Lavatera maritima, more common in mass-market nurseries and in my experience far hardier than advertised, is similar in size but produces lavender to pink flowers.

On the subject of pink, which like orange is neutral enough to go well in so many mixed flower beds: No discussion of this family should neglect chaparral mallow, or Malacothamnus (forget pronouncing it). Delicious pink-flowered species and hybrids appearing on nursery plant lists and in native plant sales include a type of Malacothamnus fasciculatus called Casitas, a type of Malacothamnus arcuatus named Edgewood and M. Jonesii.

If plants could talk, mallows would tells us of a lineage that would embarrass the Greeks, maybe even the dinosaurs. How this family of flowering plants became distributed around the world is the kind of question that can last a lifetime for biologists such as Fryxell. For us gardeners, the quest is simpler. Fathoming our embarrassment of riches boils down to questions only of size, suitability and beauty.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at


Photos, from top: Globe mallow, a type of Sphaeralcea ambigua named Louis Hamilton, photographed by Annie Wells; lavatera photographed by Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times; detail of a bush mallow, photographed by Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times; Sphaeralcea hybrid Childerley, photo courtesy of Garden Natives.