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It’s all there

2012 April 19

By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

With three parted leaves like the traditional shamrock, the wood-sorrels are calling out to us these days from sunny and shady locations.

Bright pink Oxalis rubra from Brazil naturalizes in lawns. Photo by Ken Moore

The most noticeable of the Oxalis species is O. rubra, which right now is making appearances in lawns about town. It’s a bright-pink flowered oxalis from Brazil that has naturalized in neighborhood yards.

We have a beautiful, shy native pink wood-sorrel, Oxalis violaceae, which you will occasionally discover while walking in local forests. Only a few flowers can be seen here and there, the real charm of this plant being the engaging clover-like leaf, which is tinged with a pale-purple coloring. I’d never seen it in the open until last week while walking the N.C. Botanical Garden’s Mason Farm Biological Reserve. There was quite a stand of it flowering profusely out in one of the recently burned fields. I could not help but think that like young children, those violet wood-sorrels had seized an opportunity to escape the nearby woodlands and frolic about in the sunny field.

Much more commonly observed about town is the small yellow-flowered Oxalis dillenii, southern yellow wood-sorrel. This is the one I remember from my childhood. I am delighted to discover it is the first plant described in the introduction of Doug Elliott’s Wildwoods Wisdom. Most likely out of print, Doug Elliott’s descriptions of nature’s creatures, including humans, are well worth finding a copy, whether from a library or purchased online as a used copy.

Large flowered yellow wood-sorrels are occasionally encountered in local forests. Photo by Ken Moore

This yellow wood-sorrel was the first wild plant Doug put in his mouth. His dad called it sour grass, and Doug frequently visited the little patch in his yard to sample those tart little green seedpods he called “pickles.”

That’s exactly how I remember them as a youngster – sneaking around beneath the shrubbery tasting those tart little “pickles,” and my mom searching for me to warn me about eating plants in the yard. You’ll see this small upright yellow wood-sorrel everywhere – in lawns, along sidewalks and sunny woodland borders and even at entrances to coffee shops.

Sometimes you may spot a variety of yellow wood-sorrel with larger yellow flowers. I’ve seen a few of them recently, brightening shaded forest floors.

Fruit, "pickles" of southern yellow wood-sorrel are a spicy treat. Photo by Ken Moore

Doug shares a wonderful story about seeing wood-sorrel while walking with his Canadian friend some years ago. His friend described gathering it by the basketful as a kid for his family to mix in with other salad greens. The flavor of those “sour pickles” served as a dressing. The traditional name for it in the north country is “It’s all there,” because the top of each of the three leaflets has two lobes for a total count of six, representing the six directions of north, south, east, west, sky and earth. “It’s all there,” and it’s nice to feel the completeness of being one with nature when encountering any of the wood-sorrels.

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