The Oxalis Weed: An Uninvited Guest That Never Leaves

Every winter after the rain, oxalis starts popping up. Maybe even during the rain; I don’t know for sure. But one thing is certain: On that day when you glance up on a walk and think, “oh, it’s green again,” part of the reason for the change in color is oxalis.

Bane of gardeners, this aggressive weed grows in yards, between sidewalk cracks, on hillsides, in planter boxes. The oxalis we all hate is Oxalis pes-caprae, a native of South Africa. (Which also gave us ice plant. Thanks a lot, South Africa.)

Oxalis is just about impossible to get rid of. Our La Lenguan neighbors have it, too. Actually, it’s all over the city. I’ve never had any luck eradicating it. I’ve heard that what you really have to do is dig down and remove every single god-forsaken bulb. One of these letters to the Chronicle from 2007 suggests getting chickens. So there’s that option.

It’s also known as sourgrass–and also, apparently, as Bermuda buttercup (though I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before). In small quantities it’s even edible. You can chew the flower stalk or eat the leaves; it’s kinda peppery-lemony, like a woodsy lemon drop.

Oxalis afficianados will point out that not all oxalis are bad. In fact, we even have some nice native ones, including redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), which grows in redwood forests. But the oxalis known as oxalis is a serious pain. To part on a really cranky note, this essay by science writer David Quammen explains much more eloquently than I ever could why most weeds suck.

26 thoughts on “The Oxalis Weed: An Uninvited Guest That Never Leaves

  1. I like oxalis myself. It makes the hillside openspaces look so beautiful with all those little yellow flowers. And since it’s edible I tolerate it in my own planter boxes. I’m a big fan of edible weeds, especially chickweed, dandelion, wild radish, and miner’s lettuce.

    • I agree. When you see a home in San Francisco, where the residents are too old to care for the garden, and oxalis has taken over, that’s a good thing.

      Also if you clean the flower stems and clovers very well and crush them with sugar and add water and let it sit , chill it and then strain it, you won’t find a more refreshing drink. It has a lemon taste with a subtle grassy after taste. You could probably add gin or vodka and have a great time.

      I believe the plant is 100% edible, but don’t try the above drink until you have researched it a little more. So far I have only tried it on myself.


  2. Booo Oxalis! Boooo!

    Could this be why so many people pave over their backyards?

    It spreads like you wouldn’t believe — are the seeds airborne?

    • Yeah, it can spread both by root and by seed.

      When we bought our place in 2009 the yard was one of those that had been paved over, the first thing we did was tear that out (no other “housework” event will get more guests than a BBQ with a jackhammer) and eventually sodded the parts we didn’t make into planters. Since it was paved for 30+ years there were basically no weeds to begin with, but Oxalis has slowly been trying to move in from the neighbors’ (also paved and mostly unkempt) yards by crawling under the fences. I’ve been keeping it back, but I don’t think that’s maintainable without replacing all the fences with ones that extend a foot beneath the surface.

  3. I love sourgrass. But only for eating, I don’t have a yard. For some reason whenever someone sees me eating it they always say “I saw a dog pee on that.”

    • You know, it crossed my mind that I should add some sort of caveat about how it’s edible, but that it’s probably been peed on. But then it just seemed like it would go without saying that just about any plant near a sidewalk in Bernal Heights has been peed on by a dog.

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  5. When we first moved into our house in 2005, I couldn’t believe how the oxalis took over after the first winter rains. Boy, give me a challenge, right? So I read up, and the only thing that will eradicate it is vigilant and constant removal. You don’t necessarily have to get the bulbs every time, although it helps. If you pick it early, below the point where the stem branches out and get most of the root, the bulb will be denied energy and will eventually die out. This is our sixth winter, and I’ve got our entire back yard down to a minimum of oxalis…I literally have only two or three that have bloomed this winter, and most of our yard is visible to the dirt. I can tell my progress by comparing to our neighbor’s yard, which is in full bloom and two feet high, fence to fence. It wasn’t that hard, really, just a few sweeps in the early winter before the blooms appear, maybe one more on a nice January weekend each year, and early spring removal while the garden is still damp.

    • That’s what was recommended to me by my gardening guru. Clear, wait till the next crop comes by coaxing it out with a good watering, clear, etc.

      I feel like only the big stalks are good to chomp on and the backyard kind (as opposed to the free-range variety) just never seems to get that big.

      As for the dog pee, I’d be more worried about poop it was covering up with its lush canopy (and thus growing out of).

  6. Our yard had not been maintained in decades when we bought our house. It took us years to get the oxalis out. Of course that was after we removed the ivy, fennel (with pick axe) and pyracantha!

  7. Why is it so important to get it out? I mean, is this a purely aesthetic decision, or is it actually harmful?

    • If you want a garden without it, it’s a pain. When I had a plot at a community garden, it competed with the vegetables I was growing for water, fertilizer, sun (I admit I’m a lazy gardener).

      On some levels, it’s aesthetic: if you want a nicely groomed garden, oxalis–or any other weed or plant you don’t want in it–just creates that much more work.

      It also competes with native plants. It’ll overtake a hillside, and then you don’t get the native lupines and other wildflowers that things like butterflies and bees depend on.

      But in the end, I think it’s a value decision (apologies for sounding like I’m channeling a park ranger here). Maybe you don’t mind if oxalis is in your yard. Maybe you’d prefer to remove it in favor of vegetables or flowers that are less weedy (ie, less liable to jump the fence and grow in places where they’re unwanted) and look nice to you. Or maybe you’d prefer to remove it in favor of native plants that lived here before oxalis (or us).

      Does that seem like a fair assessment?

  8. After composting my dead plants and coming to terms with my failure as a plant-owner, I recently dug some of these up from my backyard to keep as indoor plants. I’m hoping they’re strong/stubborn enough to withstand my plant “care.” They can’t be a nuisance if they’re contained indoors in they’re own pot, right??

  9. I’m trying to get it to grown in my garden. My grandson brings all of the neighborhood kids around to eat it (I have to watch them or they will eat every leaf). We just made another trip to the woods to get more starts of it for me and for the neighbors. It has a light lemon taste to it. It’s great in salads too, and makes a nice lemon drink. It’s harder to grow that it seems because it seems to go into shock when it’s transplanted. I had it at my old house and told the new buyer what it was and let him taste it, now he’s growing it too. It’s also beautiful as a ground cover (but it will only grow in the shade areas).

  10. i simply hate it in my garden. since, we moved to our new house we tried to redo our lawn bu the oxalis has taken over the whole garden and is not letting any other grass to grow properly.

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