Apricot Mallow: Tiny and Tough as Nails

Apricot Mallow

I saw a lot of amazing plants on the desert trip, some with fascinating stories and critical ethnobotanic ties to the region. Yet, with so many to choose from and so many photographs far better than these, even I find it a little bit odd that I chose to begin with one so tiny and insignificant.

I suppose my affection for this plant has something to do with how I found it.

It was our first real day in the Joshua Tree area and we chose to take a short, scenic drive over to Yucca Valley and up to a higher elevation to an old Westerns film set-cum-town called Pioneertown. We parked the car along the main drag and got out to take a few pictures. I looked down and saw below my feet a teeny, tiny silvery-leaved mallow with pretty apricot flowers. I had never seen a mallow like that before and I became curious about it. I saw it again the next day at a lower elevation, on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park.

Apricot Mallow
The Apricot Mallow aka Desert Mallow aka Globemallow captured with my camera’s phone when I first saw it in Pioneertown.

That night we took an evening walk with a local guy named Steve, a herpetologist who also happens to know a lot about the plants of the region. I took the walk as an opportunity to ask him about everything I could think of, including the tiny mallow, which he identified as Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua). He didn’t have much to say about it, but I have since looked it up in a few of the many books on the flora of the region that I purchased on the trip. “Flowers of the Southwest Deserts” (only $4 in the gift shop at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument!!) says that it is common to the California and Arizona deserts and that they form a carpet that can create quite a site when they bloom in the spring. I suspect that the few tiny plants I saw were particularly scrappy, hardscrabble stragglers (a trait that I admire in plants) that had managed to hold on through the hottest part of the summer.

According to the book (above), the local name for the plant is mal-de-ojos or sore-eye poppies because the tiny leaf hairs are believed to cause irritation. I found this fact surprising because most of the mallow family plants (Malvaceae) I am familiar with are used for their high mucilage content and soothing properties. Interestingly enough, the same book says that the Pima Indians dubbed it with a contradictory name that translates to, “a cure for sore eyes.”

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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3 thoughts on “Apricot Mallow: Tiny and Tough as Nails

  1. Ah, a close cousin of the scarlet globemallow we have up here in Wyoming. Very sturdy stuff, it does make a carpet, in some of the most inhospitable ground. Our driveway is covered in crushed recycled roadbase, and it’s spreading all over, except in the daily-use tire paths. It tolerates being walked on and even occasional running over, even though the desert here, as in many desert landscapes, is so fragile that it often only takes one car going off-road one time to leave a “two-track” that will still be visible decades later.

    The native bees from the tiny metallic green sweat bees to bumbles that sound like B-52s love it, and we’re happy to let it do its thing–one of the joys of living outside town is not having to weed useful native plants out of the driveway.

    Globemallows are quite unassuming little plants, so I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in having a fondness for them!

  2. Nice to see that even desert has the potential to turn into riot of colors during spring season, some thing which happened in green valleys so far. This flower indeed has a very interesting and attractive color, I am sure it must be fascinating to see them grow together during Spring.

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