Sunday, February 09, 2014


When people complain about oxalis invading lawns, usually they're whining about Oxalis corniculata, Creeping Woodsorrel, a vigorously crawling, low growing plant covered with tiny yellow flowers that eventually turn into explosive seed pods, scattering more creepers every direction. Others complain about the South African weed that covers California hillsides in the late winter—Oxalis pes-caprae, Cape Sorrel or Goat's Foot—a lush-looking plant with green, heart-shaped leaves spattered purple, and quarter-sized satin-y yellow flowers. The long roots attach to small bulbs deep underground that are hard to find. Pulling them out never seems to pull the bulb out. Both these species of oxalis are edible in small quantities, and their leaves and flowers add a pleasant lemony flavor to salads or garnishes.

I understand the dismay over the Creeping Woodsorrel, as it is never beautiful and grows so thickly it overtakes other plants. Yet, I have mixed feelings over Goat's Foot. It's so pretty. When it blankets a freeway bank or untended hillside this time of year, the whole area gleams deep green and gold. I pull lots of Goat's Foot, but some gets away from me every year, and right now, a small patch is blooming in the front meadow. I'll wait until it has finished its gorgeous bloom-season to pull it out, then kick myself later for waiting so long.

Oxalis pes-caprae flower

Oxalis pes-caprae leaves

While these two species give the genus a bad rap, there are many other species that are dreamy. Between stepping stones in a bed of bearded iris, Oxalis fabaefolia grows, nearly flat to the ground, spreading slowly and manageably. The leaves look just like rosettes of fava bean leaves, and the profuse fall-blooming flowers are half-dollar sized and the same, satiny yellow as Goat's Foot blossoms.

Oxalis fabaefolia

In another part of the bed, Oxalis tetraphylla, var "Iron Cross" grows, with large four-leafed fans stained bloody in the center. Iron Cross never blooms much for me, but I'll never get over the thrill of finding four-leaf shamrocks in my own yard.

Oxalis tetraphylla, var "Iron Cross"

Right now, the Oxalis purpurea, var "Garnet" is blooming. This is its second year and first bloom in my garden, and I'm happy to see the small patch is spreading underneath one of my apple trees. The plant is worth growing for its velvety purple, rounded leaves, but the 80's-lipstick-pink flowers and their twirling-skirt blooming habit make this species even sexier. The plants stay low to the ground, as you can see in this picture where it mingles with m√Ęche, a salad green that has naturalized in my yard.

Oxalis purpurea, var "Garnet"
Oxalis species work well in my garden of alkaline, well-draining soil and mild winters. They receive very little care and not much water, but they make themselves right at home here. There are more species and varieties I lust after: pale-moon blossomed Oxalis luteola; with flowers like candycanes and leaves like palm trees, Oxalis versicolor; and any of the dramatically colored variations of Oxalis obtusa

What's the difference between the weed and the dream? Is a weed something that reminds us that we don't have control? Maybe this is the year I should give up the fight against Goat's Foot and simply enjoy it. Or, maybe not. Oxalis tests my own definitions and desires.


Pasadena Adjacent said...

If your relationship is indifferent now, just wait till they take over your yard. They have mine. Started out back in 97 with a patch on the south side of my hillside. Now it's half my hillside and on to the front yard. My only hope is that they get along with the other plants. God knows there are worse plants to live with (devil's weed for one).

Had the pink clover, but it never really adapted to 'rancho-neglect.'

Kate said...

Hi Christina,
I've always liked oxalis. In fact, back in my college days I grew several kinds for my senior project. One, I remember, like you said was pretty like a candy cane when it was closed up. Closed flowers on cloudy days is probably another reason why it's not sold much in nurseries. Thank you for stopping by my blog. Yours is lovely and I'll surely have fun following along.

Philadelphia Gardener said...

Wow, love those purple leaves on "Garnet"! Does that species have the same lemony flavor as the others? What a neat addition to a salad! Thanks for sharing those with us, Christina!

Christina said...

PA: Thanks for the warning. I ended up pulling out the Goats Foot in the Carex meadow because I didn't want it to compete. I'm sure I missed some and can expect to see its pretty yellow flowers next winter.

Kate: Welcome to A Thinking Stomach! That sounds like an interesting senior project. What were you focusing on?

Philadelphia Gardener: I just had to go out and taste test. Yes, it tastes just like sorrel--lemony and really delicious, but the leaves are tougher than the Goats Foot. I'm sure the flowers are succulent and tender, but I'm loath to pull them off as I love them so much! I'll have to try once I have more to experiment with.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I was at Strouds last night and they had knocked the price down from 3.98 to a buck apiece for the purpea oxalis - but this version has really big leaves on spindly stems.

Do you think they can take sun? I'm not sure where to plant them. I picked up four.

Christina said...

PA: All but Iron Cross are in full sun here and I think they'll do well in the full sun at your place. Expect them to struggle at first as they've probably been coddled. At my house, the oxalis are already slowing down for the year, and once they die back later in the spring, I won't see them again until the fall, when I look forward to their lush foliage and pretty flowers.