Wood sorrels are edible clover lookalikes


I wish I had a dollar for every time I had to explain to a student the difference between clovers and wood sorrels. Having leaves with three equal blades does not make a plant a clover.

We usually refer to wood sorrel as Oxalis, it’s genus name. Both clovers and Oxalis have three leaflets per leaf. Both frequently wind up in our nursery pots, but that’s where the comparison ends.

Clovers are members of the pea family and have ball-shaped clusters of tiny flowers on their flower stalks. Oxalis flowers are larger, single and have five identical petals. Flowers are usually yellow, but they can be pink or white. Fruits look like miniature okra pods and are filled with dozens of seeds. A single plant could produce hundreds of seeds.

Oxalis leaves are heart-shaped and have a smooth edge. Clover leaves have a toothed edge and are not heart-shaped.

There are over 500 species of Oxalis. Most are adapted to shady places and don’t invade sunny areas as much. Most species are perennial, and they tolerate a wide range of soil types.

In general, this plant doesn’t grow well in wet soils. When conditions are dry for long periods, wood sorrels go dormant. However, they don’t die and will resume growth when favorable conditions return. This makes them very adaptable.

Wild wood sorrels are a nuisance in lawns, flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and greenhouses. They are more difficult to control than clovers with herbicides.

Most types have either aggressive spreading rhizomes or bulblets. This makes them difficult to restrain because they have different ways to reproduce. Pre-emergent chemicals will keep seeds from growing, but they have little or no effect on rhizomes or bulblets. Using only post-emergent herbicides opens areas up to new plants growing from seeds where soil is exposed.

Cultivated versions have been developed recently. They are often used in flowerbeds and hanging baskets. Vigor, color and the ability to handle adverse conditions are assets. Keeping them from invading places where they aren’t wanted can be a problem.

I have a pink perennial type that has invaded my lawn. It has large leaf blades and a high percentage of 4-leaved plants. It almost looks like it has been planted there. For this reason, I have not declared war on it. It’s pretty and is only conspicuous in spring.

With a name like Oxalis, one might expect plants to be high in oxalic acid. They are. Leaves are edible and have a sour taste which is pleasing to many people. Foliage can be consumed directly or made into an herbal tea. Drying the leaves and grinding them into a powder makes tasty seasoning for grilled foods. It’s a great lemon substitute.

Since plants are high in oxalic acid they might pose a problem if eaten in any quantity by people who have trouble with kidney stones. Other than that, this weed has positive nutritive properties. Leaves are high in vitamins A and C. The only other drawback might be pesticide residue. Never collect from areas that might have been sprayed.

Oxalis plant showing seed pods

This ubiquitous weed finds its way into nearly every pot.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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3 Responses to Wood sorrels are edible clover lookalikes

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Oh my! I only find this topic to be funny because this morning, an associate referred to clover as ‘trilium’, and for some reason, I repeated the mistake, and we actually conversed about it for quite a while before we realized what we were talking about. It made sense to us at the time, but what a boo boo!

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