Scarlet Globe Mallow: The Hunger, Beauty, and Pain

Scarlet Globe Mallow: The Hunger, Beauty, and Pain

Sphaeralcea coccinea

Image taken by the author.

Image taken by the author.

Synonyms — Malvastrum coccineum

Family — Malvaceae

Family Characteristics — 

Aliases — Cowboy’s Delight, Scarlet False Mallow, Red False Mallow; Heyoka ta Pezhuta (DAKOTA); Yerba de la Negrita {meaning: Herb of the Beautiful Black Lady} (SPANISH); 'Azee’nth'inih {meaning: Gummy Medicine} (NAVAJO).

Binomial Etymology— From Greek, Sphaera {meaning: sphere} and alcea {meaning: mallow} [3]. coccinea is a Latin term meaning scarlet [5].

Binomial Pronunciation: — sfeer-AL-see-uh kock-SINN-ee-uh

Traveller, we’ve gone on some incredible explorations together, but this time, I need to level with you: the story of Sphaeralcea coccinea has had a profound effect on me.

Having ruminated on the story of this plant, I am now writing you as I hang by fingertips over a pit of self awareness. The lord of platitudes, wherever it may reside, was right when it said “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

I had no idea.

I have walked past and over this plant hidden among the semidesert brush countless times. I’ve superficially regarded its flowers as mildly pleasing and assumed there was nothing more to it.

I was wrong. Sphaeralcea coccinea has led to some uncomfortable realizations.

In the past, I’ve read the term, “famine food,” as a sexless and uninteresting fact… as if this term suggested the plant was of little worth. To the contrary— having never experienced the existential terror and pain of famine—I have realized this was an assumption born of ultimate privilege. Without a doubt, “famine food” represents unimaginable grace on a plane of despair that, with blessings, we may never face.

The scarlet globe mallow was not even a food, but a medicine to alleviate the symptoms of hunger and starvation. Think about that for a moment; it’s only a small piece of the story.

The scarlet globe mallow was used to protect hands from being scalded while plunging them in boiling water. Sure, this is shocking, and was used at one time to entertain, but ask yourself what would compel someone to plunge their hands into boiling water to punish themselves?

Humility? Fear? Desperation?

Before this article, we may have been more apt to step over Sphaeralcea coccinea than consider it; well, we are about to enter a whole new world.

It is my privilege to introduce you to the story of Sphaeralcea coccinea:

The Scarlet Globe Mallow.

Scarlet Globe Mallow Description

Below is a pictorial accounting of some key morphological characteristics of Sphaeralcea coccinea.

Scarlet Globe Mallow Habitat

Often found growing in arid and disturbed sites of the American and Canadian west [3].

Ethnobotany of Scarlet Globe Mallow

S. coccinea was reportedly used as a hair wash to strengthen hair and stimulate its growth by Americans of SPANISH descent [1].

The NAVAJO chewed the roots during times of food scarcity [2] [4]. The NAVAJO/KAYENTA used apply the dried plant flour to sores, made a lotion from the plant to treat unspecified skin diseases, and prepared the plant to drink as a beverage [4]. To the NAVAJO, the plant was known as a life medicine or panacea [4]. The COMANCHE applied an infusion of scarlet globe mallow to reduce swellings [4]. The DAKOTA applied the the macerated plant to wounds and lesions for a cooling and healing effect [4].

DAKOTA jugglers chewed [4] and applied S. coccinea (known to them as Heyoka ta Pezhuta) to their hands allowing them to be submerged into boiling water before horrified and amazed onlookers [6]. The LAKOTA were also known to use the plant to protect the hands from scalding water in this way [4]. The TETON SIOUX were also known to use the plant for these purposes; however, their ceremonial use of S. coccinea was documented thoroughly by the Smithsonian Institute’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1918 [7].

Ceremonial Use of S. coccinea by the Teton Sioux [7]

Image of Charging Thunder retrieved under Creative Commons licensure from  The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 61 entitled  Teton Sioux Music  by Frances Densmore.

Image of Charging Thunder retrieved under Creative Commons licensure from The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 61 entitled Teton Sioux Music by Frances Densmore.

The Teton Sioux performed the ceremony, Heyo’ka Ka’ga, when someone dreamed of a Thunderbird (mythical birds responsible for creating thunder) in a particular way. Dreaming of a Thunderbird was an occurrence particularly fraught with danger for— if the dreamer failed to show humility before the creature—a mysterious force governing nature (referred to as the Wakan’tanka) could potentially bring punishment and misery down upon the individual with the fullest and most unbridled ferocity.

Of course, if you had a dream in which you neglected to respect the Thunderbird, immediate action in the form of initiating a Heyo’ka Ka’ga ceremony was called for.

If you woke up from a dream of this kind, this is what you would do:

To inform the community of the situation, you would present an offering to the Thunderbirds on the highest pole of your tent. This would be an item of high value such as an ornate robe or tobacco. The gravity and nature of the situation would immediately be understood.

Painting your face black and white (or blue and white), you would construct the shabbiest tent possible within the tribal circle and dress yourself in the most ragged clothes you could conceive of. You would paint lightning bolts upon your arms in reference to the Thunderbird, and tie a bunch of grass or sage to the hair above your forehead in order to shroud your unworthy face.

Holed up inside your dilapidated tent, you would select a ceremonial leader and compensate this person well (maybe even giving him/her a horse).

At this point, a member of your community announced what you had done, that Heyo’ka Ka’ga was going to begin, and that anyone (man or woman) who had experienced a similar dream was to take part.

The ceremonial leader led you from out of your ramshackle tent in your tattered clothes and paraded you before the community who loudly jeered you and laughed at you. You were to marinate in this humiliation as you sang and told the crowd of your dream.

You provided the ceremonial leader the most valuable hunk of meat you could afford. Others who had a similar dream followed suit.

The leader oversaw a boiling pot of water and threw the provided meat into it in an exacting and ceremonial manner.

The water represented what comes from the clouds, the fire represented the sun, the meat represented the animals, and the steam represented clouds in the sky; all of these were the gifts of Wakan’tanka to you and your community.

Now for the most important part of the ceremony. Enter scarlet globe mallow.

Having applied a maceration of Sphaeralcea coccinea to your arms, you were to PLUNGE YOUR HANDS INTO THE BOILING WATER AND SEIZE YOUR HUNK OF MEAT.

This was a most serious act of penance in the form of pain.

Your hands searing, you would not eat the meat, but give it to a member of the assembly (some of whom have never stopped heckling you). At this point, songs would be sung by yourself and the ceremonial leader to return you— in a sacred manner— to obedience and humility before the forces of nature.

Sure, you were being laughed at, ridiculed, and humiliated, but the Heyo’ka Ka’ga ceremony was a massively important one and, in-and-of-itself, no laughing matter at all.

For a more detailed account, especially concerning the music, seek The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 61 entitled Teton Sioux Music by Frances Densmore (starting on page 165). The publication is a boon to our human heritage and can be read for free at archive.org.

Image taken by the author.

Image taken by the author.

Scarlet Globe Mallow in Magic

The NAVAJO used S. coccinea to cure diseases brought on by witchcraft [2] [4].


I’d like to thank you for accompanying me on this particular journey, Traveller. I’d like to confide in you that it is my only goal to string together stories between plants and people that are important to our human heritage. That said, I find it slightly uncomfortable when I find myself explaining the use of a plant that was primarily used by a single group sharing an ethnic or cultural identity. In this case, I’ve spoken almost exclusively about Native Americans.

It is not my goal to explain any culture of which I am not a member. It is my goal to learn with and from humanity at large. All I have at my fingertips is the historical record. With a spirit of humility, I would like to close with the invocation of Hanlon’s Razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.”

I welcome your valuable perspective.

Please comment with any corrections, observations, perspectives, or stories regarding scarlet globe mallow below. All of references are available upon request by emailing me here: pullupyourplants @ gmail.com

With Love,

Kevin Healey II

Narrow-Leaf Globemallow: Another Southwestern Mallow

Narrow-Leaf Globemallow: Another Southwestern Mallow

Stinging Nettle: The Movie.

Stinging Nettle: The Movie.