Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, in my search for a Wednesday Weed I have written about some tiny plants: chickweed, shepherd’s purse and hairy bittercress all come to mind. But this tiny survivor, with its chocolate-coloured heart-shaped leaves, almost escaped my attention. It was inching its way along the edge of a wall, accompanied by general detritus and some busy black ants, and seemed far too dainty for a city environment, but there it was.
Later in the spring, it will have bright yellow, five-petalled flowers, but for now it’s just a bracelet of leaves. They aren’t always as dark-coloured as in my plant, as you can see from the example below.It seems hard to imagine, but this miniscule plant is apparently a ferocious weed given half a chance. It fires its seeds explosively (leading to a German name that translates as ‘red jumping clover’) and it also roots at the stem nodules, spreading laterally. It will grow from a tiny stem fragment, and so is hard to eradicate. Because it is so inconspicous, it is often introduced into the garden in the soil that surrounds plants purchased from garden centres, and this is thought to be a popular route for several other related species, such as the least yellow sorrel(Oxalis exilis) from New Zealand and the upright yellow sorrel (Oxalis stricta) from North America. Once here, yellow sorrels seem to be able to thrive in the merest teaspoonful of soil.
Procumbent yellow sorrel is also known as creeping wood sorrel, or as sleeping beauty. It was already a weed in Somerset in 1585, but it is so ubiquitous that its area of origin is unknown, though it is thought to be from the Old World. It is now the 24th commonest alien weed in London (out of a list of 30 such plants) according to my copy of ‘Alien Plants’ by Clive Stace – it is just beaten to 23rd place by michaelmas daisy, but gets in above red valerian in 25th place. In number one position is…….buddleia! Out of those 30 ‘weeds’ I have covered 18 in the Wednesday Weed, so I have some ideas now for other plants I should look out for.
But I digress, as usual.
There are apparently many medicinal uses for procumbent yellow sorrel: it has been used as a cure for intestinal worms, as a treatment for cancer and to stop vomiting. That it has also been used as an insecticide should give us a heads up that this is a potentially poisonous plant: it contains oxalic acid, which in vast quantities can cause kidney damage and gout. However, as the Oxalic Acid website says, the only plant which contains enough of this substance to cause a problem is rhubarb, and then you’d have to eat an estimated eleven pounds of the leaves (not the stalks) to get a lethal dose.
There are a lot of recipes for sorrel out there on the internet, but one problem is confusion with that other sorrel, Rumex acetosa, a member of the dock family and the usual chief ingredient of Sorrel Soup. I shall have to do a separate post on ‘proper’ sorrel when I next find some in the cemetery, but in the meantime, do not waste your time picking those tiny purple leaves. It will take you about three hours to get enough (if you can find them) and I fear that, in East Finchley at least, the chance of dog contamination is astronomically high.
However, in India (where the plant is known as Changeri) the leaves are used seasonally in salads and, like all wood-sorrels, they do have a slightly acidic, lemon-like taste. Maybe they would work as a sprinkling of oh so trendy micro-greens if you could find a clean source. They would certainly be very pretty.As you might know, I am a great lover of words, and this whole post had me pondering about the word ‘sorrel’. We know that it’s used for two separate kinds of plants, but it’s also used to describe the coppery chestnut colour of a horse. This gives me a chance to share one of my favourite paintings, ‘Whistlejacket’ by George Stubbs. Whistlejacket is undoubtedly a sorrel horse, and I love that Stubbs has depicted him without the usual bridle and saddle and rider. This feels like a true portrait of an animal as an individual, rather than as something owned and being used as a status symbol, though this is what the horse was. Stubbs seems to reach over the head of his owner, and to see the horse as a ‘person’. All great art, I would argue, alerts us to the particular, and allows us to make connections to our own lives.
But why ‘sorrel’? One theory is that is nothing to do with our little plant, but is because of the colour of the ripe seedheads of that other sorrel, the member of the dock family. I shall leave you to decide if this is credible or not.
Photo One (Yellow procumbent sorrel flowering in paving crack) – I, Uwe W. [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en) or CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two (Yellow procumbent sorrel in flower) – By picture taken by Olaf Leillinger – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2199050
All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!