Messages from STEM and Health Science Scholars
It is August now and marsh mallows abound. They dance with cattails along the wetland edge in Riverhead and loom large over Levittown lawns. Marsh mallows are scattered haphazardly at the local Aldi and King Kullen. Not in the baking aisle beside tubs of icing and colorful cake mixes, but near the entrance by potted plants, discarded circulars, flung face masks, and a lonely mechanical horse waiting for a quarter. Yes, real marsh mallows.
The subject of these sightings is the true marsh mallow (open compound noun with a space) that has faithfully welcomed midsummer long before glamping and gobbling smores marshmallows (closed compound noun with no space). Marsh mallow is a plant, one of myriad herbaceous (non-woody) species in the mallow family (Malvaceae), many of which persist in muck and mire to earn their aquatic appellation. They are justly famous for their gaudy flowers held atop six-foot stalks during the dog days like a constellation of red, pink, and white dinner plates fluttering in the breeze. These mallows may be more familiar as “hibiscus”; our native Long Island “rose mallow” is the beautiful Hibiscus moscheutos.
The connection between flowering marsh mallow and gooey marshmallow runs deeper than their prominence during summer. As early as 2000 BCE, the original Egyptians were first to discover that pulp scraped from the fleshy roots of local marsh mallow plants (Althaea officinalis) could be boiled with honey to create a thick, soothing medicinal salve. Sugar makes it better, so early 19th century French bakers learned to whip marsh mallow root pulp with sugar to create the forerunner of our familiar tasty treat. The romantic notion of enjoying a confection extracted laboriously from swamp roots gradually fell victim to automation and artificial ingredients. Today’s stiff white pucks crammed into clear plastic bags are conjured in a primordial industrial soup of sugar, stabilizers (such as gelatin and xanthan gum), and protein-based “whipping agents” before being extruded onto an infinite conveyor belt. Yum!
The duality of mallow—hibiscus and their kin—as horticultural hero and culinary curiosity runs deep. Every spring between Tax Day and Flag Day a parade of tractor trailers leaves from Florida plant nurseries laden with woody-stemmed Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, the Chinese (or Hawaiian) Hibiscus. These tropical plants arrive just in time to decorate backyard pools in Pennsylvania and patio pots in Paducah. All summer long the shrubs, some trained into small trees with artfully braided stems, flaunt blooms in bright pink, red, and yellow. The fall arrival of freezing temperatures brings this show and the plants’ existence to an abrupt end. More hardy and permanent is Hibiscus syriacus, known colloquially as rose-of-sharon and found everywhere in gardens, roadsides, and waste places. This woody shrub begins its strut around Independence Day with stiff stems that erupt into clouds of white, pink, and purple flowers until early fall. The show overlaps with its swamp- and garden-dwelling marsh mallow cousins, meaning that hibiscus reigns supreme in the summer landscape to delight plant lovers and insect pollinators everywhere.
Beyond our gardens, mallow is ubiquitous with a culinary connection that extends far beyond sugary puffs. Just as summer hibiscus flowers unfurl, we savor the molten marshmallow of campsite smores sandwiched between wafers of chocolate. The key ingredient of chocolate is cocoa derived from seeds of the “chocolate tree” (Theobroma cacao), a tropical shrub allied to the mallows that is found in Central and South America. While the flowers of chocolate tree are tiny and decidedly un-hibiscus-like, the hidden treasure of its fruit (indeed, Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods”) was well-known to indigenous people centuries before Spaniards introduced cocoa to Europe in the 1500s. Though less familiar than chocolate, okra is equally beloved by connoisseurs of fine cuisine. Okra’s iconic tapered green pods (capsules in a botanical sense) lend texture and taste to gumbos, stews, salads, and many other delicacies of the American South. Most folks have never seen okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) growing in the garden or wild Africa but spy its beautiful yellow flowers and the alliance with hibiscus is confirmed. The 16th century introduction of okra to the Americas from Africa coincides with the slave trade, a troubled history it shares with roselle. This utilitarian plant from West Africa (Hibiscus sabdariffa) migrated by ship across oceans to Asia, Caribbean islands, and elsewhere by the 17th century. Its flower parts are still beloved today in Jamaica and other sultry summer locales as the basis for a refreshing, brilliant red tea. Roselle leaves are also collected across Asia and enjoyed as a popular vegetable in many cultures.
The summer landscape and warm season menu would be sinfully incomplete without marsh mallow and kin. Thankfully, successful garden cultivation is a breeze and malvaceous culinary ingredients are readily accessible to cooks on a budget. Be on the lookout for mallows in your local garden center, food emporium, or marshy swamp.
This essay benefitted from a semester-long dormancy. Originally conceived in August, it was buried at summer’s end, seasoned through the frenetic fall, and harvested in January. Protracted downtime (or “extended growth,” if you will) is a luxury seldom afforded writing assignments, though every writer should acquiesce and let prose rest—be it for 24 hours or 24 weeks—to be revised with fresh eyes. If you do it, defects once hidden will emerge from the void. I hope my readers agree this mallow musing was favored by the extended breather.
My new review once again revealed verbose tendencies and the opportunity to “Omit needless words!” in true Strunkian-style. I accept that many more remain. More important was the chance to revisit the wide divide between two key segments of my audience: the larger group for whom marshmallow is a mere gooey treat and the small minority familiar with mallow as a botanical wonderchild. A central goal for every horticulture communicator, professor or otherwise, is to broaden appreciation for plants within the greater population. This should be easy in our post-pandemic world, where mini-succulents are the new pet rock and everybody loves plants as much as Baby Yoda. Such inclusivity, however, spans widely to encompass casual weekend gardeners, millennials, retirees, and aspiring students. I even hoped to reach those black thumbs who despise the living and prefer plastic grass. Or rocks. Herein lies an opportunity and challenge. How can a writer with one voice craft a message that serves the needs of a mixed (and often strongly elementary) readership? This is a quandary with which my colleagues and I wrestle every day in the dynamic and highly specialized field of horticulture and landscape design. But the struggle is universal.
My strategy was to first embrace my swooning base of hopeless plant lovers—the low-hanging fruit, per se—with botanical descriptions and scientific rigor. Those among you who write about psychology might likewise invoke Freud, while the mainstream economics essayist could name-drop Adam Smith and describe his invisible hand. Regardless of discipline and audience, we should all flash our credentials to quickly get somebody on-board the bus! I surmised that my Latin binomials and botanical jargon would prod loyal supporters to quench their thirst for knowledge and drink the Kool-Aid (or hibiscus tea)! But what of the throngs for whom marshmallow is best intended as an antidote to the healthy potential of sweet potato casserole? Would they embrace the rich backstory of the cultural icon that is mallow? I chose to pique human interest with references, short narratives, and factoids made accessible with imagery, metaphors, and descriptive language. As a species we are fascinated by our mysterious origins and relish “the rest of the story” conveyed through genealogy, etymology, celebrity Wikipedia profiles, gossip columns, and television shows such as Dirty Jobs and How it’s Made. I hoped my audience would be similarly smitten by the genesis of okra.
Achieving this goal was clearly a tall task! Humor and anecdote are reliable tools for writers seeking to build trust with a novice audience that is skeptical and uninformed. I wagered that even if folks were unmoved by tales of Egyptians harvesting roots to concoct early Marshmallow Fluff, they would certainly be swayed to learn that convenience store Hershey Bars are “food of the gods.” I like to build reader confidence by reinforcing the familiar before tentatively teasing the botanical backstory. I also believe in the tactful use of shock and awe. Can I broaden the botanical umbrella and quicken the pulse of the blackest thumbs and most zealous rock-lovers with stories of hibiscus flowers so large and colorful they border on the obscene? Maybe. Writers cannot predict if their painstaking efforts to draw such connections will ensnare readers and coax them to venture beyond the initial paragraphs. But in this case, I was hopeful.
Many writers can appreciate my struggle to meet the needs of a multi-faceted audience characterized by uneven levels of understanding and interest. The challenge arises in every discipline. No matter how carefully crafted, your battle plan threatens to fail since sacrificing detail for artifice may repulse the mavens in your back pocket, while clinging to lingo threatens potential readers who lurk beyond the edge of the crowd. But this is a risk worth taking. Much of my professional communication—both in the classroom and extracurricular settings—targets an audience rich in horticultural interest but lacking practical experience. I do not gravitate to the peer-reviewed journals only frequented by fellow academics. I prefer to enrich the experience of practicing professionals by sharing anecdotes and novel perspectives, while empowering raw students to gain confidence by citing references and observations to which they can understand and relate. Writing to meet these goals is laborious, but I find the process rewarding and the source of great pride when the task is done and done well.