The plant with the name of a loaf
Several species of tree mallow are found growing wild in Malta. They are known as ħobbejż, a word of Arabic origin meaning small loaf.
The name was presumably given to it because of the seed pods which are in the shape of a loaf. A similar name is used for the seed pods in Jersey where they are known as “petit pains”.
The English name mallow comes from Old English malwe which in turn comes from the Latin word malva.
The latter name is derived either from an old Greek word for yellow or from a Hebrew word which sounds like the Maltese word melħ and which, like in Maltese, means salty.
In 1859 the French name for mallow, mauve, started to be used for a colour.
This plant should be instantly recognisable, yet, most people hardly notice it growing along roadsides and in abandoned fields especially close to the coast. It can grow up to two metres and has a strong woody trunk which in Malta would qualify it as a small tree.
It has large leaves and from March to June, it has unmistakable brightly coloured flowers.
It grows along the coasts of Western Europe and the Mediterranean as far east as Greece. It is often very common on islands.
The tree mallow (ħobbejża tas-siġra) can grow in environments with high salinity.
Like the tamarisk tree, known in Maltese as bruka, it can survive in these difficult conditions because it is able to excrete salt through glands on its leaves.
Many parts of the plant leaves were used to make poultices to treat sprains and burns and in some places they are still used as animal fodder.
They have also been used as an alternative to toilet paper.
In the Middle East the leaves are used in a traditional Arab dish known as khubeza.