The stunning desert globemallow plant (Sphaeralcea ambigua) is a familiar sight all over the desert Southwest and a popular attraction for the native bees and butterflies. You can find them in many areas of the Southwest—along dirt roads; dry, rocky slopes; on the edges of sandy marshes; and many other areas. You may have heard of this plant by one of its more common names—desert hollyhock, apricot mallow, sore-eye poppy, Parish mallow, mal de ojo, or rough-leaf apricot mallow—but they are all referring to the same plant that thrives here in the Southwest, and I hope this article will teach you all about this beautiful, drought-resistant plant. Then hopefully, you too will soon have one growing in your own backyard.
FYI: The name “sore-eye poppy” refers to eye irritation caused by the tiny hairs that are all over the plant, so don’t handle the plant and rub your eyes.
These plants are found from Southern California to Southwest Utah; in Southern Nevada; and in Northern Baja, California. They are plentiful here in New Mexico and can be seen all the way down into Mexico in elevations from about 3,000–8,000 feet.
This native perennial is a sub-shrub that has numerous stems on it that are slightly woody. Each plant will grow (usually) in a large, round clump and reach a height of up to 40 inches, although one of my plants is about five feet tall right now. Some of the plants could have dozens of stems growing from one root. I have found that my own plants differ in looks from others (especially those that are growing in the wild), probably because of the way I have been attempting to train them to grow upward instead of outward.
These apricot-colored, five-petal flowers bloom year round. The flowers, which are usually about 1–1 ½” wide, are cup-shaped and appear along the upper stems of the plant. Although I haven’t seen any others personally, I understand that some forms of this plant can produce petals that have different colors—bluish, white, purple or pink.
You will need to soften the hard coating on the seeds by rubbing them lightly with sandpaper or soaking them in 180˚F water overnight. Mix the seeds with moist sand, place in a plastic baggie and store in the refrigerator for 30 days before planting.
Seeds can be planted in the early spring, but before you plant them, make sure you have selected an area that receives lots of sunshine! (Remember, these are very low-maintenance plants that thrive in the desert area of the Southwest.) Then, make sure the soil is free of any weeds. I have an old colander that I use outdoors and actually sift the dirt before I plant any seeds, then toss out any weeds that are left in the colander.
The seeds only need to be planted only about 1/2” deep and need to be spaced at least 2–4 feet apart to allow them to spread out adequately. Of course, everyone’s yard is different and only you know how you want them to look. My own personal plants are spaced three feet apart and they are doing just fine. Keep the soil moist until germination.
Water the seedlings occasionally until they are established, as the mature plants grow well in times of drought but seedlings need some moisture. If you want bushy plants, cut them back occasionally. When mature, your plants can be divided.
The tiny hairs on the leaves conserve moisture and reflect sunlight, as well as giving the foliage a characteristic grayish color. And, although I haven’t seen any of these animals in our backyard, desert creatures (bighorn sheep, rabbits and chuckwallas) feed on the leaves of a desert globemallow plant. I have found, however, that our backyard birds—doves, sparrows and some small birds that I believe to be bush-tits—feed on the seeds, especially in late spring and early summer.
The genus name "Sphaeralcea" comes from the Latin words for "globe" and "mallow," in reference to the shape of the blossoms and to the plant family.
Desert globemallow seeds are available from many commercial sources, but cultivars should always be selected based on the climate in your area and the plant’s resistance to local pests. Also, choose a cultivar that meets the requirements for your intended use. I suggest that you consult with your local extension office for recommendations on some cultivars that might be just right for your area.
Luckily, this plant will thrive in almost any soil that drains well. Another plus for it is that it is self-seeding. I let one of my plants go to seed this year and harvest thousands of tiny seeds to share with friends and relatives.
A desert globemallow will survive very well on whatever rainfall it happens to receive, but it will flower more if you supplement water in times of drought. It is hardy in temperatures as low as -10˚Fahrenheit, so once you get one of these plants started, there’s very little you can do to it (over-watering, under-watering, general neglect) that it hasn’t already faced from Mother Nature . and survived.
The leaves and roots of desert globemallow have been used by Native Americans for many years to make medicine. It has been used orally for coughs, colds, diarrhea and the flu and applied to the skin for sores, skin wounds, burns and snake bites.
© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on October 06, 2018:
Pamela: I lived on the East Coast for a while and I do miss all of the flowers that I loved in that location, but I am just so happy to be living in the Southwest now. I have been learning so much about the plants of this area, and I appreciate your comments, and your willingness to read the articles I write. I hope to be able to get to Florida soon so my husband can get some great photos of the wildlife and the flowers. There are some amazing birds in that area that I can't wait to see. Thanks so much!
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 06, 2018:
The apricot color makes these plants so beautiful. I live in the east, so an apricot hibiscus that can grown in nothern FL is a beautiful flowering bush for us.
However, I have traveled in the desert many times and did live in CA for a period of time many years ago. Seeing flowers like yours when traveling in the desert is a delight!
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on October 05, 2018:
The Hibiscus coulteri is a desert rose hibiscus, but this is a desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), which I assume is in the hibiscus family, although only experts are able to distinguish these plants accurately. I am studying to be a master gardener, so maybe I'll be able to answer your question more accurately some time soon.
Dori West on October 05, 2018:
Is this a type of hibiscus?