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Unlocking the Potential of Oxalis (Wood Sorrel) in Your Garden

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If you’ve ever strolled through the garden aisles at your local supermarket or hardware store around St. Patrick’s Day, you might have noticed charming little pots of shamrocks. These plants are delightful additions to your dining room decor. However, these cute oxalis plants are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their potential.

Oxalis species vary widely in leaf size, color, and shape, boasting blooms that range from tiny and charming to large and vivid. Not only are they edible and low-maintenance, but they also serve as excellent alternatives to traditional lawns. Choosing native species also enhances your garden’s ecosystem by attracting crucial pollinators.

Moreover, oxalis plants are incredibly resilient against pests and diseases. Even the boldest of pests rarely disturb these tough plants, allowing them to thrive undisturbed. This resilience lets you concentrate on more temperamental plants, secure in the knowledge that your oxalis will keep growing strong without much fuss.

But there’s more to these plants than meets the eye. We’re about to dive deep into the world of oxalis, turning you into a true aficionado of this underappreciated genus. A well-rounded garden not only features standout plants like roses, hydrangeas, and clematis but also requires the quiet charm of fillers like grasses, creeping juniper, and, of course, oxalis.

I’ve been a fan of these versatile plants since my early days of urban foraging because of their distinct appearance and ubiquity. I’m here to share my passion and perhaps turn you into a fellow oxalis enthusiast. Just wait—you’ll find them irresistible!

Introduction to Wood Sorrel 

Wood sorrel, or Oxalis acetosella, is a charming ground-cover plant from the Oxalidaceae family. Found throughout Europe and parts of Asia, including the UK, it’s often seen as a sign of ancient woodlands in southern and eastern England.

Introduction to Wood Sorrel 
Credit: Chosen Weeds Farm

Known affectionately as ‘Alleluia’ due to its blossoming from Easter to Whitsun, wood sorrel boasts over 20 nicknames, like ‘cuckoo sorrel’ and ‘sleeping Molly’. The name ‘Oxalis’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘acid’, highlighting the tangy flavor of its leaves, which is echoed in the species name acetosella, meaning ‘vinegary’ or ‘sour’ in Latin.

When spring arrives, wood sorrel’s blooms offer nectar and pollen to early-season pollinators such as hoverflies and bees. It’s even listed among the RHS Plants for Pollinators. However, it’s important to note that Oxalis plants can be toxic to pets.

This genus is incredibly diverse, with hundreds of species thriving everywhere except Antarctica. They often go unnoticed, blending seamlessly into their surroundings.

Oxalis plants are frequently mistaken for clovers due to their three-part leaves, yet they boast a wide array of forms and adaptabilities. Some species develop taproots, while others grow rhizomes or corms, with foliage varying from simple oval leaves to more complex five-part leaves.

Each Oxalis plant typically features a single flower per stalk and one leaf set per stem. And while many refer to them as shamrocks, no plant officially bears this name; it’s more of a folk term applied to various small, three-leaved plants, including some Oxalis species.

Though often grouped with sorrels like Rumex acetosa, Oxalis should not be confused with these different edible plants. While all Oxalis are edible, they contain oxalic acid, which can interfere with calcium absorption in the body. Those with conditions like gout or kidney stones should steer clear, but others might enjoy its vitamins A and C and its iron content.

These hardy perennials are not only long-lived but also proficient at reproducing and spreading. Oxalis plants can self-seed and extend their reach underground, although few are cultivated widely. Only O. tuberosa is commonly grown for food, while others, like O. versicolor and O. triangularis, are cultivated for their decorative qualities.

Next, we’ll explore how to propagate Oxalis in your garden to enhance its beauty and utility.

Description and Characteristics of Wood Sorrel

Wood sorrel is a charming little plant, standing just about 10cm tall with distinctive trefoil leaves. Each of these leaves is heart-shaped and boasts a vibrant green color on the top and a purple hue underneath.

Come April and May, wood sorrel shows off its delicate white blossoms, marked by striking lilac veins. These flowers are quite responsive to their environment, opening up to soak in the daylight and closing at dusk or during rainfall.

While wood sorrel is unique, it’s often mixed up with its cousins in the oxalis family, like the creeping wood sorrel or yellow oxalis (Oxalis corniculata), pink sorrel (Oxalis articulata), and the strawberry oxalis or pink wood sorrel (Oxalis crassipes ‘Rosea’).

These variants share the trefoil leaf structure but flaunt yellow or pink flowers, and in some cases, their leaves may even appear bronze-brown instead of green.

It’s easy to confuse wood sorrel with other similar-looking plants such as clover or medick. Another plant that could be mistaken for wood sorrel is the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), though its flowers lack the lilac veining typical of wood sorrel and its leaves are lobed, setting them apart.

Not only is wood sorrel picturesque, but its leaves are also edible, with a tangy, lemony flavor reminiscent of tart apples.

However, they should be consumed sparingly. Wood sorrel contains oxalic acid, which can be harmful in large doses. Those with conditions like arthritis, gout, or kidney issues, or those who are pregnant, should consult a physician before consuming it.

If you’re venturing into foraging wood sorrel, always arm yourself with a reliable field guide or join a guided walk with a knowledgeable expert to ensure correct plant identification.

Harvest judiciously, taking leaves only from plentiful areas, and always adhere to local guidelines by seeking the landowner’s permission before foraging. This respect for nature will ensure you enjoy the bounty without harming the ecosystem or breaking any laws.

How to propagate wood sorrel

Whenever you’re considering what type of plants to cultivate, I can’t stress enough the benefits of opting for native species.

Native plants are a breeze to care for since they are adapted to thrive in your local climate, meaning they demand far less of your time and effort. This approach not only makes gardening easier for you but also supports the surrounding wildlife.

If your heart is set on growing Oxalis, either for its tasty tubers or beautiful blooms, be prepared for a bit more work. However, it’s definitely doable.

Although most Oxalis species are well-behaved and stick to where they’re planted, a few, like O. pes-caprae in California, have been known to spread aggressively into wild areas. To avoid ecological issues, make sure to check local guidelines for any problematic species before introducing non-native plants into your garden.

Propagating Oxalis From Seed

Propagating Oxalis can be quite straightforward, particularly from seeds. Just walk past any disturbed soil area during spring, scatter the seeds, and voila!

Propagating Oxalis From Seed
Credit: Gardener’s Path

Although it sounds simple—and it can be—Oxalis has a unique way of ejecting seeds from their pods, ensuring they don’t travel far from the parent plant. This natural dispersal makes it an easy species to grow from seeds.

Just remember to use fresh seeds as older ones may not germinate. Lightly rake the soil, sprinkle the seeds about an inch apart, and gently press them into the ground or just barely cover them. A light watering will do, but keep an eye out for birds that might find your seeds tempting. A simple chicken wire cover can help protect them.

Propagating Oxalis From Corms or Tubers

For those Oxalis varieties that prefer a head start in life, using corms or tubers is the way to go. These are often available for purchase, particularly the four-leaf and purple shamrock varieties.

Planting them is easy; just dig a small hole in spring, place the corm about an inch deep, and space them six inches apart. Orientation doesn’t matter; these resilient plants will find their way up. Cover them with soil, give them a good watering, and they’ll soon start to grow.

Propagating Oxalis From Corms
Credit: House Plant Journal

Propagating by Division
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Wood sorrel is typically spread through its rhizomes and is best propagated by either dividing the plants in the spring or by taking root cuttings. Remember, it’s not legal to remove wood sorrel from the wild without proper authorization, so your propagation efforts should focus on plants that are already established in gardens.

When your oxalis plant becomes mature and starts to spread, you can propagate it by division. Simply drive a shovel into the center of the plant to split it, then work your way around the perimeter to carefully lift it from the soil. Once divided, replant the section at the same soil depth in a new location, and backfill the original spot with fresh potting soil.

Transplanting Nursery Plants and Seedlings

You can often find various species of oxalis at nurseries, especially during the spring. Those charming shamrocks available around St. Patrick’s Day are usually oxalis, so be on the lookout. Some specialty nurseries might even offer native species that are local to your region.

Transplanting seedlings is best done in the cooler seasons of spring or fall when the weather conditions are mild and moisture is more abundant. When transplanting, dig a hole about twice as wide as the pot’s diameter and just as deep.

Carefully remove the seedling from its container, place it in the hole, and surround it with a mix of potting soil and well-rotted compost. This enriched soil helps the plant get off to a strong start. Space the plants about nine inches apart to ensure they have room to thrive.

How to plant and grow wood sorrels

Wood sorrel thrives in the speckled light of shaded banks and slopes, places where other plants might find challenging. It’s perfect for creating a lush underlayer in woodland and wildlife gardens, or nestled under shrubs and trees.

While wood sorrel isn’t too picky about soil quality, it does demand good drainage. If its roots are constantly soaked, the plant won’t survive. You can plant wood sorrel in spring using plugs, small plants, or rhizomes in humus-rich soil that’s moist yet well-drained.

If you’re dealing with sandy or clay-heavy soil, don’t stress. Mixing in some well-rotted compost or manure should do the trick. Or, if you feel like skipping that step, no big deal! Oxalis, the genus wood sorrel belongs to, can endure less-than-ideal soil conditions, though it won’t grow as vigorously.

For those looking to harvest the tubers, planting in fertile, loose soil is crucial for allowing the roots to spread. Oxalis tolerates various soil pH levels, but aiming for a slightly alkaline range, between 7.2 and 7.8, is ideal. While it can survive in full sun, partial shade during the warmest parts of the day is optimal for its growth.

In terms of watering, Oxalis is low maintenance. Native varieties are particularly resilient, adapting to local moisture levels and often requiring little to no supplemental watering—I only watered mine a few times during a notably dry summer. Non-native species may need more attention, typically needing water when the soil is almost dry.

Regarding drought tolerance, while all varieties can withstand some dry spells, prolonged drought will cause stress until they are watered again. However, no variety favors waterlogged soil.

When it comes to feeding, a simple annual application of a mild, all-purpose fertilizer is sufficient, or just a sprinkle of well-rotted manure in the spring can be enough. Essentially, Oxalis is a robust plant that can flourish even under minimal care.

How to plant and grow wood sorrels
Credit: Gardener’s Path

Growing Tips:

  • Aim for partial sun or shade.
  • A yearly fertilization, or just some manure, is all you need.
  • Avoid letting the soil dry out completely, but be wary of overwatering.

How to care for wood sorrel

Wood sorrel is pretty low-maintenance once it’s settled in your garden. You’ll notice it slowly starts to spread on its own, but it won’t take over aggressively. However, be wary of other oxalis species that might be more invasive. It’s wise to remove any aggressive growers early, before they have a chance to reproduce.

If your wood sorrel starts to get a bit unruly or leggy, don’t hesitate to give it a trim. You can even cut it down to the ground in the fall; it’ll just bounce back when spring rolls around, as many species are programmed to do.

Thinking of using wood sorrel as an alternative to your lawn? Feel free to mow it a few times a year with the mower set to its highest setting. This helps keep it neat and prevents it from getting too wild. While this step isn’t necessary, it’s a neat trick if you’re missing the clean look of a traditional grass lawn.

Choosing the Right Oxalis Variety

Oxalis plants come in a plethora of varieties, so choosing a native species or one that thrives in your local climate can simplify your gardening efforts. While all types can be cultivated as annuals outside their ideal zones, here are some standout choices to consider:

  • Deppei:

Also known as Four-leaf sorrel (O. deppei or O. tetraphylla), this species is notable for its unique four-leaf structure. The ‘Iron Cross’ variety features striking green leaves with a vivid red-purple center, making it a perfect choice for a St. Patrick’s Day decoration.

It can be grown as a perennial in Zones 7 to 10 and reaches over 12 inches in height. However, it can be somewhat invasive, so it may require extra management.

Four-leaf sorrel
Credit: wikipedia
  • Oregana:

Redwood sorrel (O. oregana) is my personal favorite — and yes, I might be a little biased since it’s native to my area. Despite its less dramatic appearance, it has charming heart-shaped leaves and sports rose-colored flowers throughout the summer.

It forms a dense, low-growing ground cover that’s ideal for shady spots and does not spread aggressively, making it a great lawn alternative. It thrives as a perennial in Zones 6 to 9.

Redwood sorrel
Credit: Native Foods Nursery
  • Triangularis:

Commonly seen in indoor settings and during festive occasions, O. triangularis is a popular decorative choice across the U.S. It typically grows between six to twelve inches tall and can have leaves ranging from medium green to deep purple, adorned with white or pink blossoms. This species prefers warmer climates and is suitable for Zones 8 to 12.

O. triangularis
Credit: Wikipedia
  • Versicolor:

Known as Candy cane sorrel, this South African native is celebrated for its visually captivating flowers. Each flower features a distinctive white interior with red-edged petals. It flowers from September to early winter and is suitable for growing in Zones 7 to 9.

Candy cane sorrel
CCredit: Gardening Know How

Dealing with Pests and Diseases

Oxalis is a robust alternative to traditional lawns, mainly because it doesn’t require mowing. It’s generally resistant to pests and diseases, so you rarely need to take action against these issues. However, you might occasionally find slugs and snails causing damage or notice signs of oxalis rust.

Here’s what to look out for:

Insects

The primary pest you’ll encounter on oxalis is aphids. While they’re common, they’re usually not a significant concern outdoors. If aphids appear on one or two of your plants, simply prune the affected branches and treat the plants with neem oil—a versatile solution I always have on hand.

For larger infestations, a strong jet of water from your hose once a week should help clear the problem.

Diseases

Disease is rare with oxalis, especially if you’re growing native varieties in appropriate conditions. However, if you do see signs of disease, it’s often a cue that the environment isn’t quite right. Adjust your growing conditions, and the plants usually recover on their own.

Watch out for these issues:

  • Leaf Spot

This is the most common disease in oxalis, caused by fungi like Phyllosticta guttulatae and Septoria oxalidis. It typically occurs when plants don’t get enough light and are watered from above.

Ensure your plants receive sufficient sunlight and water them at the soil level to avoid this problem. If leaf spot does occur, improve air circulation and sunlight exposure by relocating your plants or pruning them. Remove any severely affected leaves but avoid treating the plants chemically.

  • Rust

Oxalis can also fall prey to rust, which shows as yellow-orange spots on the undersides of leaves. This fungus thrives in moist conditions, so watering your plants at the soil level is advisable. If rust develops, a directed watering approach and morning irrigation can help. In severe cases, treat with a copper fungicide every other week for six weeks.

Harnessing the Versatility of Oxalis

Wood sorrel, or Oxalis, is a versatile plant that offers a wealth of uses, especially if you’re cultivating it yourself! Recognized globally as a culinary delight, the leaves of Oxalis are edible across its various species. While some may taste a bit tart, each type brings its own unique flavor to the table.

Come fall, it’s time to harvest the tubers once the leaves begin to wither. Simply use a garden fork to gently unearth the plant, shake off the excess dirt, and hold off on rinsing them until you’re ready to cook.

These tubers are delicious when roasted with a mix of oil or butter, garlic, and a medley of veggies like spinach, kale, lentils, and carrots, turning a simple dish into a hearty meal.

Not just for eating, Oxalis leaves can also enhance salads, soups, sandwiches, cocktails, and even pasta dishes. However, moderation is key, as consuming large amounts or frequent servings can interfere with calcium absorption due to oxalic acid.

eat Oxalis
credit: Edimentals

Beyond its culinary uses, Oxalis can serve as a charming, low-maintenance ornamental in your garden. Whether planted in flower beds, borders, or pots, it’s a standout addition. Some even use it as an alternative to traditional lawns.

While it might not withstand heavy activities like a soccer game, it can endure regular foot traffic and blooms more vibrantly than typical grass, enhancing your landscape and supporting local wildlife with its biodiversity.

Many are quick to remove this plant from their yards, yet embracing its presence could transform your garden, eliminating the need for constant lawn care and the excessive use of fertilizers.

Wood sorrel, often overlooked, is gaining recognition among gardeners who value its simplicity and the beauty it adds without the high maintenance of more temperamental plants.

If you’re excited about exploring the potential of less common edibles right from your backyard, Oxalis might just be your next garden favorite.

Are you ready to become an Oxalis expert? I’d love to hear how you plan to use this incredible plant. Choosing a species yet? Any recipes or creative ideas? Drop your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!

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