Abutilon and its relatives

Caught sight of in a neighbor’s (walled) front garden: bits of a pretty vining abutilon, in bloom for a good part of the year. Much like this variety (Firefly):


And for several years, just around the corner (on the northwest corner of Emerson and Forest in Palo Alto) there used to be a big concrete planter with a sweet upright abutilon growing in it — until the shrub was vandalized to death, and then the planter as well, alas. The color of this one was much like the plant in (#1); here’s a gorgeous deep red variety (Nabob):


Coming up: discussion of abutilon and the mallow family to which it belongs. Marshmallows and gumbo will eventually appear.

Abutilon turns out to be related to an enormous number of familiar plants, including the okra plant. Just from these photos, you might see the resembance to rose of Sharon (#3) and hollyhocks (#4):



From Wikipedia:

Abutilon … is a large genus of approximately 150 species of broadleaf plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. The genus includes annuals, perennials, shrubs, and small trees found in tropical and subtropical regions around the world.

Common names include Chinese bell flower, Chinese lantern, Indian mallow, and Flowering maple (for the maple-like leaves of some species, although the genus is not related to the true maples).

… The five-petaled, pendulous flowers also have long, thin stalks, and are usually bell-shaped, especially when first opening. Their stamens are combined into a tube around the style. The flowers come in shades of red, pink, orange, yellow and white.

The Sunset New Western Garden Book describes the Abutilon hybrids (like the ones above) as evergreen shrubs with upright, arching growth (up to 8-10 ft. tall, with broad maple-like leaves and drooping bell-like flowers in white, yellow, pink, or red). Their main blooming season is spring, but some forms seem to flower almost continuously.

The etymology of the generic name is something of a mystery. From OED3 (Dec. 2011):

< post-classical Latin Abutilon (1507 in a translation of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine) < Arabic ‘wbwṭylwn (a1037 in Avicenna Canon II. ii. xxvii.), a word of uncertain meaning, etymology, and pronunciation (the precise vocalization being uncertain, as only consonants are normally written in the Arabic script). The initial a in the Latin word may be due to a mistranscription of the Arabic word. The post-classical Latin word was also borrowed into other European languages; compare Middle French, French abutilon (1557; also †abutillon (1649)), Spanish abutilón (1606).

Now we move up the taxonomic hierarchy to the family, where there’s a new complexity: the taxonomic hierarchy in botany. Here the issue is that though the Linn(a)ean taxonomy came to be associated with an account of the development of taxa (species especially) in a Darwinian framework, other definitions of species, in particular those based on molecular biology, not infrequently run against the Linn(a)en account based on shared flower parts.

On the Malvaceaea:

The Malvaceae, or the mallows, are a family of flowering plants containing over 200 genera with close to 2,300 species. Well-known members of this family include okra, cotton, and cacao [also baobab, durians, and kola nuts, and a huge number of flowers (see below)]. The largest genera in terms of number of species include Hibiscus (300 species), Sterculia (250 species), Dombeya (225 species), Pavonia (200 species), and Sida (200 species).

The circumscription of the Malvaceae is very controversial. The traditional Malvaceae sensu stricto [‘in the strict sense’] comprise a very homogeneous and cladistically monophyletic group. Another major circumscription, Malvaceae sensu lato [‘in the broad sense’] has been more recently defined on the basis that molecular techniques have shown the commonly recognised families Bombacaceae, Tiliaceae, and Sterculiaceae, which have always been considered closely allied to Malvaceae s.s., are not monophyletic groups. Thus, the Malvaceae can be expanded to include all of these families so as to compose a monophyletic group. Adopting this circumscription, the Malvaceae incorporate a much larger number of genera.

… If looking for information about the traditional Malvaceae s.s., we recommend referring to Malvoideae, the subfamily that approximately corresponds to that group.

The English common name ‘mallow’ (also applied to other members of Malvaceae) comes from Latin malva (also the source for the English word “mauve”). Malva itself was ultimately derived from the word for the plant in ancient Mediterranean languages.

(On monophyly:

In common cladistic usage, a monophyletic group is a taxon (group of organisms) which forms a clade, meaning that it consists of [an ancestor] species and all its descendants. (link) )

Three further genera in the family: Hibiscus, Lavatera, and Althaea.

[1] Hibiscus … is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. It is quite large, containing several hundred species that are native to warm-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. Member species are often noted for their showy flowers and are commonly known simply as hibiscus, or less widely known as rose mallow. The genus includes both annual and perennial herbaceous plants, as well as woody shrubs and small trees. The generic name is derived from the Greek word ἱβίσκος (hibískos), which was the name Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40–90) gave to Althaea officinalis.

… The tea made from hibiscus flowers is known by many names in many countries around the world and is served both hot and cold. The beverage is well known for its color, tanginess and flavor.

Some species in the genus: H. moscheutos, perennial hibiscus, rose-mallow; H. rosa-sinensis, Chinese hibiscus, tropical hibisus; and H. syriacus, rose of Sharon (see below). A Chinese hibiscus:


[2] Lavatera is a genus of about 25 species of flowering plants in the family Malvaceae, native to the Mediterranean region, central and eastern Asia, North America (California and Mexico) and Australia. A number of species are naturalized in North America.

Many Lavatera species have now been transferred to the related genus Malva. Lavatera species are known as tree mallows, or rather ambiguously as rose mallows, royal mallows or annual mallows.

The genus includes annual, biennial and perennial herbaceous plants and soft-wooded shrubs, growing from 1–3 m tall. The leaves are spirally arranged, and palmately lobed. The flowers are conspicuous, 4–12 cm diameter, with five white, pink or red petals; they are produced in terminal clusters. (link)

The OED2 etymology: modern Latin (J. Pitton de Tournefort (1706), in Hist. Acad. Roy. Sci. Mém. 86), < the name of the brothers Lavater, 17th- and 18th-cent. Swiss physicians and naturalists.


I tried growing lavatera in my Columbus OH garden, but without success.

[3] Althaea is a genus of 6–12 species of perennial herbs native to Europe and western Asia. It includes Althaea officinalis, also known as the marshmallow plant, whence the fluffy confection got its name. They are found on the banks of rivers and in salt marshes, preferring moist, sandy soils. The stems grow to 1–2 m tall, and flower in mid summer. (link)

The OED3 (Sept. 2012) etymology: < classical Latin althaea marsh mallow (Pliny; in post-classical Latin also altea (6th cent.)) < Hellenistic Greek ἀλθαία marsh mallow < the stem of ancient Greek ἀλθαίνειν to heal (ultimately < the same Indo-European base as classical Latin alere to nourish: see aliment n.) + -ίαia suffix1; so called on account of the healing properties of the plant.

The plant:


Now a digression on marsh mallow (the plant) and marshmallow (the confection).

(Phonological note: The name of the plant and the name of the confection are both accented like noun-noun compounds, which the name of the plant clearly is: primary accent on the first element, weaker accent on the second. As far as I know, te name of the plant is always pronounced with the vowel [æ] in the second element, while the name of the confection can be pronounced this way, but is often pronounced with the vowel [ɛ] in the second element; [ɛ] is my pronunciation, in fact.)

Marshmallow is a confection that, in its modern form, typically consists of sugar and/or corn syrup, water, and gelatin, whipped to a spongy consistency and coated with corn starch. Some marshmallow recipes call for eggs. This confection is the modern version of a medicinal confection made from Althaea officinalis, the marshmallow plant.

Marshmallow probably came first into being as a medicinal substance, since the mucilaginous extracts comes from the root of the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, which were used as a remedy for sore throats. Concoctions of other parts of the marshmallow plant had medical purposes as well. The root has been used since Egyptian antiquity in a honey-sweetened confection useful in the treatment of sore throat. The later French version of the recipe, called pâte de guimauve (or “guimauve” for short), included an egg white meringue and was often flavored with rose water.

The use of marshmallow to make a sweet dates back to ancient Egypt, where the recipe called for extracting sap from the plant and mixing it with nuts and honey. Another pre-modern recipe uses the pith of the marshmallow plant, rather than the sap. The stem was peeled back to reveal the soft and spongy pith, which was boiled in sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft, chewy confection. Confectioners in early 19th century France made the innovation of whipping up the marshmallow sap and sweetening it, to make a confection similar to modern marshmallow. The confection was made locally, however, by the owners of small sweet shops. They would extract the sap from the mallow plant’s root, and whip it themselves. The candy was very popular, but its manufacture was labour-intensive. In the late 19th century, French manufacturers thought of using egg whites or gelatin, combined with modified corn starch, to create the chewy base. This avoided the labour-intensive extraction process, but it did require industrial methods to combine the gelatin and corn starch in the right way. (link)

Now to five Malvaceae that I grew in my Columbus garden: rose of Sharon, hollyhocks, “Zebrina hollyhocks”, sidalcea, and okra.

[1] Rose of Sharon is a common name that applies to several different species of flowering plants that are highly valued throughout the world. The name’s colloquial application has been used as an example of the lack of precision of common names, which potentially causes confusion. (link)

Sharon in the common name derives from an Israelite place name meaning ‘forest’ in Hebrew, referring to a fertile plain near the coast of Israel. This is also the source of the personal name.

The name in the Bible might have referred to a number of different plants: Pancratium maritimum (sand daffodil, sand lily, or lily of St. Nicholas), a crocus, a tulip, a tulip-like plant that grows in the hills of Sharon, or a lily. But the name is also commonly used for two different plants, neither of which is likely to have been the plant from the Bible: Hypericum calycinum [St. John’s wort], an evergreen flowering shrub native to southeast Europe and southwest Asia; or Hibiscus syriacus, a deciduous flowering shrub native to east Asia. I had a hypericum shrub in my Columbus garden — very pretty plant with golden flowers, but in the family Hypericaceae rather than Malvaceae. In any case, for me and most people I know, rose of Sharon refers only to Hibiscus syriacus (illustrated above in #1).

[2] Alcea …, commonly known as hollyhocks, is a genus of about 60 species of flowering plants in the mallow family Malvaceae. Most species are native to southwest and central Asia, although a few are native to southeast Europe or Egypt. They are biennial or short-lived perennial plants growing to 3.5 m (11.48 ft) tall, with broad, rounded, palmately lobed leaves and numerous flowers (pink or yellow in the wild species) on the erect central stem.

… Hollyhocks are popular garden ornamental plants, cultivars selected, particularly from A. rosea. The flowers have been selected for variations in colour, with dark purple, red and white-flowered plants available in addition to the colours found in wild plants.

Illustrated in #2 above.

The OED3 (Sept. 2012) etymology of Alcea: < classical Latin alcea kind of mallow (Pliny; also in scientific Latin as Alcea, genus name of the hollyhock (Linnaeus 1753)) < Hellenistic Greek ἀλκαία kind of mallow, use as noun of feminine of ancient Greek ἀλκαῖος , adjective < ἀλκή strength, defence (see analcime n.) + -αῖος, suffix forming adjectives

Then there’s the etymology of hollyhock. From OED2: < holy adj. + hock n.1 mallow: evidently of hagiological origin; compare the Welsh name hocys bendigaid, which appears to translate a medieval Latin *malva benedicta. Another name was caulis Sancti Cuthberti, ‘Seynt Cutberts-cole’ … The guess that ‘the hollyhock was doubtless so called from being brought from the Holy Land’ has been offered in ignorance of the history of the word.

[3] Malva sylvestris ‘Zebrina’, Zebra mallow [or Zebrina hollyhock]: An old Cottage-garden favourite, this cousin to the Hollyhock has similar satiny flowers in a soft lavender-purple shade, exotically striped with deep maroon veins. It forms an upright, bushy mound that may need to be staked if grown in rich soil. This is a short-lived perennial or biennial, often flowering itself to death in the first year, but coming back the next year from self-sown seedlings. (link)

In my Columbus garden, the Zebrinas freely self-seeded. The plant:


[4] Sidalcea is a genus of the botanical family Malvaceae. It contains several species of flower known generally as checkerblooms or checkermallows, or prairie mallows in the United Kingdom. They can be annuals or perennials, some rhizomatous. They are native to West and Central North America.

… Garden cultivars are hybrids between S. candida and S. malviflora.

The OED2 etymology: modern Latin (A. Gray in G. Bentham Plantas Hartwegianas (1848) 300), <  Sida n. + Alcea, the names of related genera. Alcea is the hollyhock ([2] above), and Sida is another genus in the mallow family; the OED2 etymology for Sida: modern Latin, < Greek σίδη some water-plant.

[5] Okra (… Abelmoschus [or Hibiscus] esculentus Moench) … is a flowering plant in the mallow family. It is valued for its edible green seed pods. The geographical origin of okra is disputed, with supporters of South Asian, Ethiopian and West African origins. The plant is cultivated in tropical, subtropical and warm temperate regions around the world.

… Okra is often known as “lady’s fingers” outside of the United States. In various Bantu languages, okra is called kingombo or a variant thereof, and this is the origin of its name in Portuguese (quiabo), Spanish (quimbombó or guigambó), Dutch and French, and also possibly of the name “gumbo”, used in parts of the United States and English-speaking Caribbean for either the vegetable or a stew based on it. In India and Pakistan, and often in the United Kingdom, it is called by its Hindi/Urdu name, bhindi or bhendi or bendai.  (link)

The OED3 (March 2004) etymology: < a West African language, probably Igbo ọ́kụ̀rụ̀. Compare Akan ŋkrũmã, Twi ŋkrakra broth.

It’s a pretty plant:


The pods grow fast, so they have to be picked before they become big and fibrous.

The Wikipedia article goes on to consider the culinary uses of the plant:

The products of the plant are mucilaginous, resulting in the characteristic “goo” or slime when the seed pods are cooked; the mucilage contains a usable form of soluble fiber. Some people cook okra this way, others prefer to minimize sliminess; keeping the pods intact, and brief cooking, for example stir-frying, help to achieve this. Cooking with acidic ingredients such as a few drops of lemon juice, tomatoes, or vinegar may help. Alternatively, the pods can be sliced thinly and cooked for a long time so the mucilage dissolves, as in gumbo. The cooked leaves can also be used as a powerful soup thickener. The immature pods may also be pickled.

Pods, whole and sliced:



I’m very fond of okra in all of its manifestations: pickled whole okra and preparations of the sliced pods — stir-fried, dredged in corn meal and pan-fried, stewed, curried, and of course in gumbo. Ah, gumbo:

Gumbo is a dish that originated in southern Louisiana during the 18th century. It typically consists primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and seasoning vegetables, which can include celery, bell peppers and onions (a trio known in Cajun cuisine as the “holy trinity”). Gumbo is often categorized by the type of thickener used: the African vegetable okra, the Choctaw spice filé powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves), or roux, the French base made of flour and fat.

… Several different varieties exist. In New Orleans, what is known as Creole gumbo generally contains shellfish. Cajun gumbo varies greatly, but often has a dark roux with either shellfish or fowl, but not together. The Creoles of Cane River make a gumbo focused much more on filé. After the base is prepared, vegetables are cooked down, and then meat is added. The dish simmers, with shellfish and some spices added near the end. Gumbo is traditionally served over rice.

The dish combines ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures, including French, Spanish, German, West African, and Choctaw. Gumbo may have been based on traditional West African or native dishes, or may be a derivation of the French dish bouillabaisse. It was first described in 1802, and was listed in various cookbooks in the latter half of the 19th century. The dish gained more widespread popularity in the 1970s, after the United States Senate cafeteria added it to the menu in honor of Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender. The popularity of chef Justin Wilson in the 70’s spurred further interest in gumbo. The dish is the official cuisine of the state of Louisiana. (link)

The OED2 etymology: ‘from the Angolan kingombo, the ki- being the usual Bantu prefix, and -ngombo the real word’ (J. Platt, jun., in Athenæum, Sep. 1, 1900); Marcgraf 1648 writes quingombo.

I once spent four days in New Orleans, managing to have gumbo twice a day during my stay. No two versions were the same; some were tastier than others, but they were all satisfying.

Writing up this posting moved me to have dinner at my neighborhood New Orleans restaurant, NOLA (for New Orleans LA), last night — so that I could have a cup of gumbo, of course. From the NOLA menu:

chicken andouille gumbo

slow roasted chicken and andouille sausage gumbo with holy trinity, okra, our slow cooked dark roux and pearly white rice

On andouille sausage, from Wikipedia:

Andouille … is a smoked sausage made using pork, originating in France and which was taken to the United States through Louisiana by French immigrants. It is distinguished in some varieties by its use of the entire gastrointestinal system of the pig.

In the US the sausage is most often associated with Cajun cooking, where it is a coarse-grained smoked sausage made using pork, garlic, pepper, onions, wine, and seasonings. Nicknamed “The Andouille Capital of the World,” the town of LaPlace, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River, is especially noted for its Cajun andouille. Andouille sausages are sometimes referred to in the US as “hot link” sausages.

With an entertaining linguistic footnote:

Andouille is also an insult in French, designating an imbecile, or a rascal. [‘You sausage!’]

3 Responses to “Abutilon and its relatives”

  1. Misreading | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] A blog mostly about language « Abutilon and its relatives […]

  2. Peeps | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a lead-in to Easter Sunday (commemorating the Last Supper), and marshmallow came up yesterday in my posting on abutilon, so it’s time for a posting on Peeps, a confection associated with Easter. An array […]

  3. Alina Says:

    Totally enjoyed it. Love both — plants and languages. Thank you!

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