Wood-sorrel – Oxalis acetosella: Oxalidaceae
The plant: This plant is a creeper essentially – but also a perennial. It grows in woodlands and hedges – especially where the land is damp and has been undisturbed for a very long time. I have seen it grow on the top of moss growing on old stones in Allandale and this plant was growing in the cleft of a dead Hawthorn bush in Slitt Wood, Upper Weardale. Here it is demonstrating its saprophytic character – it can live on dead or dying organic material. It is found throughout Great Britain and is best described as locally common. Where it seems to thrive especially well is in areas of stable land which is calcareous or neutral. Usually less than 10cm in height.
The flower: The flowers are rarely more than 9 or 10mm in diameter and there are five white petals separate from one another and showing delicate lilac veins. Occasionally the plant has light pink flowers. The flowers are seen in April but can persist for a month or two. There is one flower per stalk. The flowers are hermaphrodite and can self-pollinate, but are also pollinated by bees and other insects
The leaves: These are trifoliate, green and recumbent: they fold down at night. They can be hairy and the hairs are clearly shown on the photograph. Each is on a stalk coming from the base of the plant.
Names, mythology, uses and folklore: The plant has many colloquial names which include wood-sour and ladies’ clover. Hearts, cuckoo meat, cheese and bread, wild clover, crinche cranche (Welsh – but I can find no similar words in Welsh dictionaries!), sleeping beauty and sleeping clover. In some parts it is known as the Alleluia flower for it appears at Easter when the word Alleluia re-appears in Church liturgy.
The leaves are eaten raw and are used as a food-stuff in their own right or as a way of “livening up” a green salad. The leaves have a high oxalic acid content which gives them a lemony taste – oxalic acid is a poison but a large quantity indeed would be needed to have any discernible effects. However, do take note of this. The flowers can be eaten raw as well – they make a good decoration for salads. It is also said to be especially good in fish sauces.
It has long had herbal properties: the plant has healing properties, including spiritual healing. Pliny recommended its use for “gastric conditions” but there are those who suggest that its oxalic acid content renders it no good for dyspeptic ailments. Pliny suggested that it could be used for even the most pestilential fevers. In the Hebrides it has been mixed in to a herb plaster for the treatment of scrofula (TB of the skin).
Not all botanists associate the plant with Christian liturgy and Christian spiritual healing. Lady Wilkinson describes its associations with Druidic practices and folk-lore – it is the Druids three-in-one mysterious secret. Where-ever Olwen, the Druid mother of Earth, trod, wood sorrel would grow in every footprint. Indeed some say that the plant has fairy associations and links with woodland elves.
Wood sorrel has also been displayed on British coins in association with Ceres, the ancient goddess of agriculture.
There is confusion over its association with St Patrick. Legends have it that Patrick, whoever he might have been, used the leaves as an aid in the teaching of the Christian Holy Trinity. It is claimed that this metaphor became the instrument of conversion for many Irish listeners to St Patrick’s teachings. There has also been confusion over the association of the trefoil leaf with the Irish shamrock emblem. Whatever might be said of it the plant has a delightful flower, extremely delicate in nature, and a welcome reminder that spring is either on the way or has arrived.