Sorrel: Romantic Interlude

pink wood sorrel (Oxalis bowiei)

pink wood sorrel (Oxalis bowiei)

Around a corner it suddenly will surprise you. You didn’t plant it, though it seems to have found its way into every part of your garden. It must have been popular at one time, because you see it, now and then, in older gardens. You never think of watering or fertilizing it, yet it grows and spreads. Too bad they don’t sell this plant in the nursery anymore.
Its name alone, redwood sorrel, is enough to make it interesting. Anything connected with redwoods must be significant. And sorrel, a plant renowned for its medicinal qualities, seems to come with other pleasant associations. Perhaps it calls to mind a novel read long, long ago – by Turgenev or D.H. Lawrence – about someone who was in love for the first time and took a walk, alone in the woods, to contemplate this special other person amidst the briars and the ferns and the wood sorrel. And then a similar person, in your own life, comes to mind, and you marvel at the distance that separates between that ancient time and this one.
People commonly mistake redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) for clover, since sorrel leaves have the clover leaf’s trifoliate, shamrock form. When the leaves first unfold, they are barely an inch across, but will soon grow up to 4 inches in size. I have only seen the pink-flowered redwood sorrel, although white, rose, and lavender types also exist. Especially in the fall and spring, clumps of redwood sorrel emerge from the ground, bearing leaves and flowers on slender green stems that grow 6 to 10 inches high.
Another common sorrel, which some consider a weed, is the Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. Like redwood sorrel, its butter-yellow flowers are borne on tall green stems, but it is considerably more aggressive than its pink-flowered cousin, taking over large areas in a few short years. I have seen this plant effectively shown off, whether or not by design, on parkway strips under street trees.
More stunningly ornamental than the above sorrels is Oxalis purpurea, whose pink, white and lavender flowers are borne only a few inches above an even mat of velvety leaves. This is the oxalis carried by most nurseries. Oxalis hirta is another exotic type with tiny flowers and leaves studded along erect stems.
“Sorrel” is derived from the German word for sour; “oxalis” comes
from the Greek word for sharp. The edible leaves of Oxalis acetosella are tart enough to make “lemonade without lemons,” in the words of a 19th-century herbal recipe book.
Another famous citrusy sorrel is the under appreciated French sorrel, Rumex scutatus. I strongly recommend that you grow this plant, since it requires scant attention and produces leaves that, added to any salad, eliminate the need for vinegar, lemon juice or any other acidic ingredient. It lives for many years in a dry garden bed and produces seeds that are easily germinated to produce more plants.
No oxalis discussion would be complete without mention of Oxalis corniculata, the weedy plant that grows in lawns and requires chemical treatment to be eradicated. This oxalis has very small clover-like leaves, yellow flowers and a taproot that defies manual extraction. There is another common variety of this weed, known as ‘Atropurpurea,’ that has red-purple leaves.
Rosemary Matgen, of La Crescenta, writes about a brutal fact of plant life: how nurseries sell plants that are very bushy but very weak; how a Dieffenbachia with “at least 20 stalks” died soon after it was purchased; how a pink “Popcorn” geranium – “never seen one before or since” – was purchased many years ago, and dearly beloved, only to be stolen off her property; how a friend purchased her a multistalked geranium “which is just taking up space … once in a great while I’ll see a stupid red bloom on it.” But Rosemary ends on a positive note: “As age overtook us and we started looking for an apartment, we were very lucky to find this one. Nothing but interesting greenery, flowers, a fish pond with a little bridge and a waterfall. Outside my living room window is a bird of paradise plant that covers two stories.”
Paradise, in fact, is always just outside the window of people who love plants.
Tip of the week: Cold-sensitive container plants that have been outside during the spring and summer should be taken in at this time. In some parts of the Valley, nights already have started to dip below 45 degrees, which is cold enough to damage certain philodendrons and dracaenas.

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