wood sorrel defined in 1912 yearwood sorrel - WOOD SORREL (Oxalis acetosella);
wood sorrel - Fifteen hundred years ago St. Patrick strove to teach the Irish people the deepest doctrines of religion by means of the Wood Sorrel's trinity of leaves, and ever since then the plant has stood for mysticism and for truths too deep for mortal comprehension. But apart from St. Patrick's parables, it makes a peculiar and intimate appeal to us, for of all our English wild flowers it is the one most highly endowed with sensitiveness, a sensitiveness that has, too, a close alliance with beauty.
A little plant, its slender rootstock creeps in the shade of the woodlands, and sends up thin, delicate leaves each composed of three heart-shaped leaflets. Though a beautiful green above, these leaflets are coloured purple on their under surface; they are usually folded somewhat along their midribs, and they are possessed of a particularly sensitive nature. Only in shade are they fully extended; if the rays of the sun penetrate their shade and strike directly upon them they sink at once down upon the stem forming a three-sided pyramid. Thus their under-surfaces shield one another, and the water-pores that lie upon them are kept from opening too widely and transpiring too freely. At night-time, too, or against bad weather, the leaf protects itself, but rather differently, for then each leaflet folds downwards in half along the midrib, and the three place themselves neatly side by side to " sleep " through the night hours, secure against storms and excessive dews. The motile organs by which these movements are accomplished are the three tiny stalks which join the leaflets to the main leaf-stem, and they act by water-power - that is, by the extrusion and absorption of water - but how they are stimulated we do not yet know. So sensitive is the leaf to light that it has no fewer than four different methods by which it can adjust itself with the greatest nicety to the amount of light it is receiving. Firstly, the whole leaf can move; secondly, the leaflets can arrange themselves at various angles among themselves; thirdly, the chlorophyll grains (or the green bodies within the cell that give colour to it) can change their position as need arises; fourthly, these green bodies can vary their shapes.
It should be noted that the plants droop their flower-heads in time of storm as well as fold their leaves.
In the tissues of the leaves binoxalate of potash is found; evaporated, it deposits in crystals, and is known as "salts of sorrel." It gives the pleasant acid flavour to the leaves, and this, combined with their delicacy, has caused them to be eaten as a spring salad from time immemorial. They were also the basis of a very famous green sauce that was taken largely with fish. "Greene sauce," says one old writer, "is good for them that have sicke and feeble stomackes . . . and," he continues with enthusiasm, "of all sauces Sorrell is the best, not only in virtue but also in pleasantness of his taste." The fragile flowers, set individually on long stalks, are fashioned after the pattern of the cranes-bill (for the plant is a member of the geranium family), so there are five sepals joined into a five-scalloped cup, five delicate petals joined below and veined with purple, ten stamens, five of them considerably longer than their five alternating companions, and five green slender columns arising from a single ovary which contains five chambers.
In five fleshy projections at the base of the petals a little honey is stored, but in spite of the purple honey-guides running down the petals to point them out the flower seems to find favour with but few insects. This being the case, the plant makes definite arrangements for self-fertilisation, the occasional crossing that it obtains sufficing for its needs. In the first place, self-fertilisation must inevitably happen when the flower closes for its nightly sleep. In the second place, the plant produces a second series of flowers, insignificant, without beauty, and unknown to the majority of the Wood Sorrel's friends, but nevertheless the more effectual members of the community. They hide among the leaves and their little twisted petals never open out, and finally are pushed off as a little cup. Only five stamens within carry any pollen, but these are almost touching the ovary columns, and the fertilising dust necessarily falls upon the latter. So fertile seeds are always produced in these cleistogamous (or hidden) flowers.
But whether the flower be the Wood Sorrel's attractive one or its hidden one, as it fades, its stalk bends over towards the ground and conceals the seed capsule under the leaves. When it is ripe the stalk straightens again and lifts it once more into evidence. And now a very curious episode happens which still further emphasises the uniqueness of the plant among our English wild flowers, for it so arranges that it actually throws out its seeds. And it does so in the following manner: The seed capsule contains five chambers ranged round a central column, and in each chamber are a couple of black seeds attached to this column. The capsule walls opposite these seeds are very thin and eventually split. Now the outer coat of each seed is a thin, transparent, inelastic one, the inner coat is black and hard, and it gradually fills with sap and ends by being greatly compressed and in a high state of tension. Finally the outer coat can hold it no longer and it splits; the inner coat bulges out, its cells promptly expand, and suddenly the whole seed turns inside out with such a jerk that it is thrown several yards right over the leaves. A slight shaking will often precipitate this shooting, and the whole operation takes place before one's eyes. Therefore it is known as a "Sling Fruit."
This plant had at one time considerable vogue for medicinal purposes. A decoction made from its pleasant acid leaves was given in cases of high fever both to quench thirst and to allay the fever. It was also serviceable in curing ulcers in the mouth.
The monkish herbalists knew this plant as "Hallelujah" or "Alleluia." An old writer explains: "The apothecaries and herbalists call it Alleluya and Paniscuculi, or Cuckowes Meat, because either the Cuckoo feedeth thereon, or by reason when it springeth forth and flowereth the Cuckoo singeth most, at which time also Alleluya was wont to be sung in Churches." Other common country names for it to-day are "Wood-sour," "Sour Trefoil" and "Shamrock." Both the Oxalic and the acetosella of its botanical name refer to the acidity of its leaves, Oxalis being derived from the Greek for sour, and acetosella meaning vinegar salts, that is, salts of lemon, commonly so-called.
Although the clover is to-day popularly accepted by Irishmen as the shamrock, experts are agreed, for many good reasons, that it was really the Wood Sorrel with which St. Patrick demonstrated, and which is the true shamrock. Now, it is to a shamrock with four leaves that tradition assigns miraculous powers, but a four-leaved clover is by no means a rarity, while a four-leaved Wood Sorrel is practically unknown, so that tradition is quite safe from fear of contradiction in this matter, however wild its assumptions.
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