What is Lavatera?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Lavatera is a genus of flowering herbs and shrubs in the mallow family, Malvaceae, which also includes cacao, hibiscus, and okra. There are about 25 species of Lavatera, most of which are native to the Mediterranean, parts of Asia, and Australia. Common names include annual mallows, rose mallows, royal mallows, and tree mallows, though some of these names are also used for plants in other genera. Lavatera plants are often grown in gardens for their attractive pink, white, or red flowers, which are also sometimes used in cuisine.

Cacao is an example of Lavatera.
Cacao is an example of Lavatera.

Lavatera arborea, or the common tree mallow, is native to the Mediterranean and the coastal regions of western Europe. It features pink to purple flowers and has a high salt tolerance, allowing it to grow mainly on coasts and islands. L. arborea has been a feature of English gardens since the 19th century at least, and it has become invasive in Scottish and Australian islands. In addition to its attractive flowers, L. arborea is grown for varied uses. Its leaves can be used in poultices to treat sprains and burns, and the flowers are used in Europe as animal feed.

Lavatera acerifolia only grows on the Canary Islands.
Lavatera acerifolia only grows on the Canary Islands.

Lavatera assurgentiflora, commonly called mission mallow, island mallow, or malva rosa, has a very different native range than other plants of the genera. Malva rosa grows only in California in the United States, and it is native to the Channel Islands, a group of eight islands off the coast of southern California. L. assurgentiflora features pink flowers with dark veins, and is grown ornamentally. Plants growing on mainland California became naturalized after escaping from cultivation.

Lavatera acerifolia, or malva de risco, and L. phoenicea are two species that only grow on the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain. L. phoenicea is especially rare, growing only on the island of Tenerife. L. cretica, commonly called Cornish mallow or Cretan hollyhock, and L. trimestris, known as royal mallow or regal mallow, are both native to the Mediterranean. L. cretica, which features small pink to purple flowers, and hairy leaves and stems, has also become naturalized in places with a similar climate to the Mediterranean, like California.

Lavatera thuringiaca is one of the most popular garden plants in the genus, and many ornamental hybrids have been bred between L. thuringiaca and L. olbia. L. thuringiaca is native to parts of eastern Europe and Asia. It is valued for its small pink flowers, which bloom in the summer.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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