Because they look so similar at certain times during the year, yellow wood sorrel and clover are often confused for one another. While clover is often considered to be a beneficial nitrogen-fixing plant, yellow wood sorrel is a pesky stubborn weed. So what’s the difference between them, and how can you tell which you have in your garden?
Yellow wood sorrel is a weed characterized by its heart-shaped leaves, bright yellow flowers, and okra-like pods that spread seeds far away from the plant. Clover, on the other hand, has rounded leaves and bushy red or white flowers and can benefit gardens and livestock.
The rest of this article will discuss the characteristics of each plant, how to tell which one you’re dealing with, the qualities of each, and how to decide if it’s a plant you want on your property or not.
What Is Yellow Wood Sorrel?
This plant is believed to be native to North America. Its scientific name is Oxalis stricta, but it’s also commonly known as wood sorrel or common yellow Oxalis. Here are some quick facts about yellow wood sorrel.
- Perennial or annual: Perennial
- Height: Up to one foot
- Bloom time: March to October
- Toxic: Edible but all parts are toxic when consumed in large quantities and can be dangerous to consume if certain medical conditions exist.
- Growth rate: Prolific
While yellow wood sorrel produces beautiful flowers, it’s not a welcome sight in most gardens. The plant’s seed pods spread far and wide, allowing it to quickly take over garden beds and lawns.
It’s also toxic if large amounts are consumed. Oxalis, the plant’s genus name, originates from the Greek word oxys, which means “sour.” It can cause an upset stomach if eaten in large amounts in both humans and animals, so it’s important to eat it sparingly and prevent animals from foraging too much on it.
What Is Clover?
Yellow wood sorrel is often confused with clover because they have similar leaf structures. However, clover is a completely different plant. The two main kinds of clover are white (Trifolium repens) and red (Trifolium pratense). These names come from the color of the flower the plant produces. Here are some facts about clover.
- Perennial or annual: Perennial
- Height: Up to one foot
- Bloom time: May to October
- Toxic: White clover in warm climates may be mildly toxic
- Growth rate: Prolific
According to The University of Georgia Extension, clover is considered a nitrogen-fixing plant. This means that the plant helps make atmospheric nitrogen available to the soil, making it more fertile. Surrounding plants then benefit from this characteristic–making clover a great companion plant for grasses and other nitrogen-loving plants.
Clover is also great forage for livestock. Animals only eat the leaves and flowers, causing less destruction to the plants and allowing for quicker regrowth. It can also deter animals from eating other toxic grasses; livestock prefer the sweet taste of clover, so they will eat less toxic plants.
Potential Benefits Of Yellow Wood Sorrel
While many gardeners would view wood sorrel as a problem plant we should also be aware of some potential benefits of Yellow Wood Sorrel.
The entire yellow wood sorrel plant is edible in small quantities. It is often used to make tea or added to soups and salads. Yellow wood sorrel should, however, should not be consumed if the person has kidney problems or certain joint inflammation issues.
The oxalic acid found in yellow wood sorrel can be toxic if consumed in large quantities but when used sparingly it actually has medicinal benefits and is often used for fevers, urinary tract infections, as well as many other ailments.
Benefits Of Growing Clover
Clover has a list of many benefits that will be a benefit to most gardeners. Below I will list a few of the most common uses for this great plant.
- Livestock feed
- Groundcover for moisture retention
- Living mulch for weed suppression
- Nitrogen fixer for soil
- Food for pollinators
- Great companion plant for many other plants
- Chop and drop fertilizer
- Edible in small quantities
- Considered a medicinal plant
Clover and toxicity to horses
It’s important to note that clover can be afflicted with a fungus called “black patch” (Rhizoctonia leguminicola) that is toxic to horses. According to The Michigan State Extension, this fungus can cause excessive drooling. This condition is non-life-threatening.
A different type of clover, however, may cause more serious issues for horses. Called alsike clover, this plant may cause big liver syndrome or photosensitization. Big liver syndrome causes liver failure and may eventually be fatal. Photosensitization may cause sunburn-like lesions, diarrhea, or colic.
Determining if you have yellow wood sorrel or clover
If it’s spring or summer, the easiest way to tell which plant you have is to look at the flowers. If they are red or white and bushy, you’ve got clover. If they are delicate yellow or orange flowers, it’s yellow wood sorrel.
If the plants aren’t blooming, you can still determine which is in your yard. Take a close look at the leaves to see if they are heart-shaped or rounded off. Yellow wood sorrel will have distinctly heart-shaped leaves, while clover’s leaves are more rounded.
Tips for removing yellow wood sorrel from your yard
The key to removing yellow wood sorrel from your yard is to act early. Once this plant goes to seed, it will come back even stronger the next year. If you can pull the plant–and its roots–out early in the season before it flowers, you’ll be able to make decent progress in eradicating it.
If you manage to pull yellow wood sorrel before it flowers, you can turn it into soil by putting it in your compost pile. It’s important to do this only with plants that haven’t developed seeds yet so that the plant doesn’t sprout in the composted soil.
Tips for removing clover from your yard
While clover can serve as a functional part of a yard garden, you may have reasons to want to remove it–like if you have horses and are worried about the clover causing illness. Just like with yellow wood sorrel, a great way to remove clover is to pull it by hand.
If you have too much clover to feasibly remove it by hand, you can also starve it of oxygen and sunlight. In the fall, cover your patches of clover with cardboard, wood, or plastic sheeting. Make sure to secure this covering so it doesn’t blow away in the wind. The next summer, the clover will be dead.
Should I use chemicals to kill yellow wood sorrel and clover?
Using natural weed killing methods are the safest, but if you don’t have animals on the property, you can also use chemicals to kill your clover or yellow wood sorrel. However, keep in mind that commercial weed killers will also destroy any other nearby plants, as well as beneficial microorganisms on the surface of the soil.
When it comes to using grass and weed killers there are options that are less harmful than many of the most popular chemical products on the market, you can read about those here.
While yellow wood sorrel and clover look very similar in the fall and winter, they are different plants with different purposes. Both species can be harmful if ingested in large quantities, but clover has numerous benefits to offer. Knowing which you have in your yard is the first step in deciding whether to keep or remove it from your yard.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Other Plants Does Yellow Wood Sorrel Look Like?
A plant commonly mistaken for Yellow Wood Sorrel is Black Medic. Wood sorrel is also often confused with shamrock and is even sometimes referred to as “false shamrock”.
How Do You Make Wood Sorrel or Clover Tea?
Add 1 cup of wood sorrel leaves or clover leaves to 2 cups of boiling water and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain the tea and add honey or stevia to sweeten to taste.
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