Field of Science

Checker Mallows

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Flowering spike of Sidalcea nelsoniana, copyright Rhiannon Thomas.

Regular readers may have noticed that it's been a bit quiet around here lately. The last few weeks at chez Christopher have been... hectic. I have been writing posts but not had the time to publish them. So over the next few days, you'll be seeing a bit of a run of short posts in quick succession. Keep your eyes out.

The handsome plant you see above is a representative of Sidalcea, a genus of about thirty species found in the north of Mexico and the western United States. Members of this genus are commonly known as checker mallows (apparently because of the pattern of veins on the petals of some species); in the British gardening trade, they are also known as prairie mallows. As indicated by their vernacular names, Sidalcea species belong to the mallow family Malvaceae, and are hence related to other flowering plants such as cotton or hibiscus. These affinities are also reflected by their genus name, which is a portmanteau of the names of two other genera of Malvaceae, Sida and Althaea. Checker mallows differ from other members of the Malvaceae in having flowers with stamens that separate from the stamineal column in two tiers, an inner and an outer ring.

Most species of checker mallow are herbs; a few may develop into subshrubs. The genus includes both perennial and annual species. Stems of checker mallows are mostly more or less erect though they are often basally reclining or decumbent towards the base;it is not uncommon for decumbent stems to become secondarily rooted into the ground and develop into spreading stolons (or 'rhizomes'). Flowers of checker mallows are usually various shades of purple; a small number of species have white flowers (or white forms may occur in usually purple species). Many species of this genus are supposed to be difficult to identify: hybridisation is not uncommon, and some species are quite plastic in their own right. Young plants may also have a quite different appearance, including differently shaped leaves, from mature plants.

Sidalcea campestris, photographed by Amy Bartow.

The primary monograph of Sidalcea was published by E. M. F. Roush in 1931. She divided the genus between three subgenera, two of which contained only a single species each with all the remainder placed in her subgenus Eusidalcea (since the publication of Roush's monograph, a third non-Eusidalcea species has been recognised). These species are all perennials that, among other features, lack the variation in leaf shape with growth seen in Eusidalcea. More recent molecular analyses have supported Roush's arrangement arangement (Andreasen & Baldwin 2003). However, they have not supported Roush's division of Eusidalcea into separate sections for the annual and perennial species; instead, it appears that one or the other habit (it is unclear which) has arisen multiple times.

Like other diverse plant genera found in the California region, Sidalcea has attracted a certain degree of research into its evolutionary dynamics. Comparison of evolutionary rates between species has found that, as might be expected, annual lineages evolve faster than perennial ones (Andreasen & Baldwin 2001). Most species within each life-history class appeared to evolve at similar rates to each other, except for three perennial species: the three non-Eusidalcea species referred to above. One of these species, Sidalcea stipularis (the only one not known to Roush in 1931) showed evidence of an unusually high evolutionary rate for a perennial; this species is restricted to a very small population (only a few hundred plants may exist in the wild) and may have been subject to a higher rate of effective genetic drift. In contrast, the other two species have diverged more slowly than expected. One of these species, S. malachroides, is a presumably slow-lived subshrub; the other, S. hickmanii, commonly germinates after fires from seeds that may have remained in the ground for a number of years. In both cases, the overall result is that particular genotypes may persist in the population longer than in species with a more rapid turnover.

Oregon checkerbloom Sidalcea oregana ssp. spicata, copyright Dcrjsr.

Another feature of Sidalcea population dynamics to have attracted interest is the occurrence in several species of gynodioecy, a phenomenon where some individuals of a population have flowers with both male and female organs whereas other individuals have female organs only. The persistence of such an arrangement raises questions: because hermaphroditic individuals have the potential to contribute to more reproductive pairings than female-only individuals, shouldn't the former end up out-competing the latter and eliminating them from the population? This has lead to the inference that some factor(s) must give the female-only individuals an advantage that allows them to persist. Ashman (1992) found in germination tests of Sidalcea oregana spp. spicata that seeds that came from female-only plants tended to germinate into healthier, more vigorous offspring than those from hermaphrodites. It may be that plants that can only produce seed by outcrossing are less vulnerable to the effects of inbreeding, or perhaps not having to invest energy in making pollen means that the parent can put more energy into producing seeds.


Andreasen, K., & B. G. Baldwin. 2001. Unequal evolutionary rates between annual and perennial lineages of checker mallows (Sidalcea, Malvaceae): evidence from 18S–26S rDNA internal and external transcribed spacers. Mol. Biol. Evol. 936–944.

Andreasen, K., & B. G. Baldwin. 2003. Reexamination of relationships, habital evolution, and phylogeography of checker mallows (Sidalcea; Malvaceae) based on molecular phylogenetic data. American Journal of Botany 90 (3): 436–444.

Ashman, T.-L. 1992. The relative importance of inbreeding and maternal sex in determining progeny fitness in Sidalcea oregana ssp. spicata, a gynodioecious plant. Evolution 46 (6): 1862–1874.

Roush, E. M. F. 1931. A monograph of the genus Sidalcea. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 18 (2): 117–244.

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