Everything You Need To Know About Growing Beautiful Oxalis Plants

There are several plants in the wood sorrel genus, many of which have been cultivated as food crops for generations. Rather than focusing on species grown specifically for food (looking at you, Rumex acetosa!), this article is about wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta).

It is a beautiful, versatile plant that can be used as an attractive, ornamental ground cover, replenishment cover and/or food source.


All about Oxalis

You have probably encountered oxalis or wood sorrel countless times without even realizing it. Wood sorrel is often confused with clover (Trifolium spp.), and one of its household names is actually “false clover”.

Both plants have three leaflets (although clover can sometimes have four instead), but while clover leaves are oval, oxalis leaves are noticeably heart-shaped.

This wild wood sorrel is a herbaceous perennial that grows enthusiastically in sandy, loamy, slightly alkaline soil. You can find it in sunny spots around woods and grasslands all over North America and it also grows sparsely in Britain, northern and eastern Europe, and parts of northern Asia.

It blooms between May and September, bursting into tiny little yellow flowers that open during the day and close and droop at night, a process known as nyctinasty.

Oxalis reseeds itself around any area it is planted in, but also reproduces via rhizomes and stolons. This can make it quite invasive and difficult to get rid of, so make sure you have it with you for a long time before you consider planting it!

Planting and propagation

Whether you establish your wood sorrel via seeds, bulbs or rhizome cuttings, aim for late summer/early fall planting. To plant the seeds, rake the area well, spread the seed in wide sweeps, cover lightly with soil and water. As for the bulbs and rhizomes, plant them several centimeters apart, cover well and mulch on top.

Root systems should become established the following season and will grow and begin to spread within a year or two. Remember that with perennials, the rule is “sleep, crawl, jump.”

The first year is all about root establishment, the second will be sparse green growth, and the third will explode into verdant splendor (sleep, crawl, leap).

Alternatively, you could plant your oxalis in the spring if you start seedlings indoors. Start seeds eight to 10 weeks in advance and transplant seedlings outdoors after the last frost date in your area.

If you find that your sorrel isn’t spreading to all the right areas, you can give it some extra help. Plant additional seeds in these spots or divide the root rhizomes in September and plant them in spots you find sparse.

Take care of Oxalis

Test your soil first to make sure it meets the needs of this plant and amend accordingly if it does not. Aim for a soil pH between 4.0 and 7.0, with plenty of sand and silt. These plants don’t like to have wet feet, so good drainage is essential.

These plants can thrive in full sun to partial shade, so they can adapt to most areas you might have on your property.

You’ll be pleased to know that these plants take care of themselves and thrive on neglect. Since they do best in poor, disturbed soils, you never have to offer them fertilizer. Indeed, feeding them can harm their well-being.

As for watering, remember that they don’t like wet feet at all. In fact, they do remarkably well in dry conditions. You will only need to water them if your area is experiencing severe drought.

Potential problems

As mentioned above, few herbivores feed on wood sorrel plants because of the toxic oxalic acid contained in their leaves. However, this does not deter all other species and there are several species of insects that can damage your crop.

In particular, wood sorrel aphids (Abstrusomyzus reticulatus) and mangold aphids (Rhopalosiphoninus staphyleae) can do quite a bit of damage, as can various grasshoppers. Some moth larvae can also devour wood sorrel leaves. Night butterflies (Galgula partita) lay eggs on the undersides of wood sorrel leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch, they nibble on any tasty, lemony greenery they can find.

wood sorrel can also fall prey to whiteflies and various mites. Keep an eye on your plants and if you see any damage to them, spray them with neem oil or garlic spray. This should repel intruders and keep the plants healthy.

Use as a ground cover or ornamental

Photo of Oxalis by Autumn Martin via Unsplash

Wood sorrel makes an attractive ground cover with its vibrant green leaves and friendly little flowers. The leaves are also incredibly soft to the touch and are much nicer to walk on or lay on than grass.

Plus, it’s excellent as a ground cover if your soil is quite depleted and inhospitable to plants that need more nutrients. Consider planting creeping thyme for a beautiful, low-maintenance yard with the added benefit of repelling mosquitoes and other unwanted insects.

You can also grow wood sorrel as an ornamental plant, especially if you don’t have much time for plant care. It looks absolutely stunning in ceramic or stone planters, or pours over halved whiskey barrels.

Benefits as a cover crop

Since wood sorrel thrives in depleted, disturbed soil, it can be excellent as a green manure to help replenish an area. Its rhizomes can help break up clay and compacted earth, while the aerial parts that die each winter decompose and add to the soil layer.

If you’re aiming to replenish an area, consider a green manure that incorporates wood sorrel but isn’t just made up of it. For example, a mixture of wood sorrel, red clover, vetch, winter rye and barley will add a wide variety of nutrients while fixing nitrogen.

wood sorrel as a food source

Wood sorrel has a sharp, acidic and astringent flavor reminiscent of lemon. Although this may sound rather exquisite, please note that these plants contain high levels of oxalic acid, which can damage the kidneys if consumed in large amounts.

You can use the little leaves as a garnish or toss a handful into a salad to add bursts of acidity here and there. I like to chop them up and add them to potato salad with chive blossoms, and their lemony flavor also works well in soups and sauces.

This plant is rich in vitamin C and has been used in tea form to help fight summer colds. In the past, people consumed it to treat scurvy, especially after long sea voyages, or as a rejuvenating herb in the spring.

Many people survived on dried foods all winter, so the vitamins C and A in these plants did them a world of good when they were available again.

Note that wood sorrel is not only beneficial to humans as a food source: these plants provide food for many species all year round. Although herbivorous mammals generally avoid their leaves, the seeds feed sparrows, juncos, sparrows, larks, finches and small fuzzies such as mice and shrews.

It’s not just seeds that feed our wild cousins: many insects like wood sorrel pollen and nectar and can often be found fluttering around the spots. You can find cabbage white moths on your wood sorrel plants, as well as various bees, flies, and moths.

Note: Never feed sorrel leaves to rabbits or equine species. It can kill fellow rabbits and cause severe colic in horses, mules and donkeys.

wood sorrel Species

Creeping sorrel (Oxalis corniculata) photographed in Zhengzhou, China, by © Zinogre on iNaturalist.

Although we focus on wood sorrel (Strict wood sorrel) here there are many beautiful and interesting species that are worth growing.

wood sorrel the species are very widespread and can be found on almost all continents. Their uses are similar, although some have higher levels of toxicity than others. Therefore, it is essential to identify your local species if you plan to eat them.

  • Oxalis acetosella grows mainly throughout Europe.
  • Oxalis montana is an Appalachian species with pink and white flowers.
  • Oxalis triangular grows mainly in South America and has dark purple leaves.
  • Oxalis caerulea thrives in the American Southwest.
  • Oxalis suksdorfii is found on the west coast from Washington to California.
  • Oxalis oreganoaka “redwood sorrel”, is found only in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
  • Oxalis melanosticta originates from the Cape Provinces of South Africa.
  • Oxalis latifolia can be found in Mexico, South America and parts of Australia.
  • Oxalis griffithii grows abundantly throughout Asia, from Bhutan and Nepal to China, India, the Philippines, Korea and Japan.
  • Oxalis corniculata (shown above) thrives throughout southern China and Southeast Asia.

As you can see, wood sorrel is a beautiful, versatile plant that can benefit any area. Do some research to see which species thrive best in your area and consider adding some around your property!

Wood sorrel makes a lovely border plant around driveways and along driveways and can also thrive around a variety of tree species. Whichever way you grow her, appreciate her delicate beauty and sneak in a leaf chew every once in a while.

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