Home & Garden Columns

The Rasputin of the Plant World

By Jane Powell
Friday February 01, 2008

Some 10 years ago I was out in my backyard pulling up ivy. My next door neighbor was doing the same. As we both neared the fence he muttered, “Gardening in California—it’s all about killing things.” He was right.  

While I occasionally get to plant something, most of my gardening for the last twenty years has consisted of hacking back out-of-control plants and weeds. It’s not that I long for the Midwest, where I was born, but I do have to admit that snowy winters kill a few things off, or at least give one a respite from the battle. I always laugh when I read that some task should be performed when the plant is “dormant”—when exactly would that be? The bouganvillea blooms all year, the lemon tree always has lemons, and it’s always the season for weeds. 

Because I have always bought fixer-uppers, I have never been blessed with what the real estate ads call “mature landscaping.” Well, possibly it’s mature, but it always seems to be mature blackberries, bamboo, Bermuda grass, ivy, or the Ultimate Plant From Hel—oxalis pes-caprae. Blackberries are annoying—but at least you can eat them. Oxalis has no obvious redeeming value, yet is pretty much the Rasputin of the plant world. 

You have to grudgingly admire its will to live. It grows from bulbs, yet its connection to the bulb is so tenuous that if you pull it up the bulb stays in the ground. When the bulb gets big enough, it splits into more bulbs. But that’s not all—if allowed to flower, it also produces up to twenty microscopic bulblets at the base of the stem. And it sends out an underground rhizome as well. 

There is conventional wisdom about how to get rid of it. Use Round-up (glyphosate), they say. Ha! It barely notices. Use newspaper or cardboard with mulch on top. Yeah. It will grow three feet sideways till it finds the edges of the cardboard and come up there. Even if you overlap it by twelve inches. Soil solarization (putting down clear plastic) is mentioned. Uh-huh. That’s like sending it for a lovely spa vacation. Pull it up while it’s green—it will weaken the bulbs. Sure. They’ll only be able to bench-press 200 pounds after that. Landscape fabric? Oxalis grows right through it. Put on a high-nitrogen fertilizer and they’ll grow themselves to death? What?—Risk that they’ll mutate into a giant indestructible plant that will take over the yard? Oh wait—that’s already happened. Dig up the bulbs and sift the soil to make sure you get all of them. Impossible. You never get all of them. 

How do I know this? Because I have spent the last four years in my current house doing all of these things. And that’s only in the backyard. Recently I have spent weeks obsessively digging down twelve inches and removing every visible oxalis bulb in an area of about 10 square feet. The same area in which I spent weeks last spring (and the three springs before that) pulling up oxalis. Then the first rain of the season arrives—and two days later, the entire area is covered with happy green oxalis, looking no different from the rest of the yard. 

It’s like I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It’s worse than Obsessive Weeding, with which all gardeners are familiar. I sit out there and sift through the soil, filling a bucket with bulbs. I don’t eat; I keep at it until it’s too dark to see. I have fantasies—mostly having to do with bulldozers, flamethrowers and Agent Orange. Occasionally I have another fantasy, one in which the garden is lovely, I have legions of gardeners, and all I ever have to do is wander out to pick flowers. In this fantasy I am also much younger, richer, and better-looking. I think longingly of this day when the oxalis is finally conquered, and there are no other weeds either. Then I remember the five million wild onion bulbs in the front yard, and despair. 

I ask myself, though frankly, not as often as others ask me, why I continue to fight this battle if it’s so futile. Well, there are many things in life which are repetitious and pointless, yet still need to be done—washing the dishes, for instance. Or I could say that I am doing my part in the battle against an invasive plant which is threatening many natural ecosystems. In a ploy for sympathy, I could compare it to my ongoing battle with a chronic form of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma—you know, all those out-of-control cancerous lymphocytes that must be killed before they colonize some other organ. Frankly, I was never much for all that cancer visualization stuff anyway. My battle with oxalis isn’t really a metaphor, it’s just an excuse to sit outside in the sun and air and think about stuff while doing a really mindless task. Not unlike fishing. Besides, deep down I hold on to the expectation that ultimately I will prevail. I’ve been told that old carpeting really will smother oxalis for good—maybe I’ll use Astroturf and pretend it’s a lawn. And I hear goats will eat anything.  


Jane Powell is the author of several books about bungalows, available at www.bungalowkitchens.com. Send your oxalis-killing suggestions to janepowell@sbcglobal.net.