A daring passion

BY VANESSA PHILLIPS
Last updated 12:49 12/06/2009
COLIN SMITH
EYE-CATCHING: Anne Murray with a colourful display of Oxalis luteola.

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When Anne Murray tells people she collects oxalis, she gets funny looks, but her garden tells another story. By Vanessa Phillips.

When Nelson's Anne Murray tells people she collects oxalis plants they stare back, shocked.

"They shudder - absolute horror at the word oxalis," Anne laughs.

Most people's experience of the oxalis family is a bad one, associated with troublesome weed varieties, such as the yellow-flowering Oxalis carniculata or Oxalis pes-caprae, which can be a real menace once established.

However, walk around Anne's Marybank sunny north-facing garden at this time of the year and your ideas about oxalis will change dramatically.

In the cooler months, when many other plants are in hibernation, oxalis steals the show in her garden, with a rainbow of colours brightening it up.

With colourful displays from vivid yellows to peach, pinks or multi-coloured flowers, the ornamental oxalis in Anne's garden are intentionally planted and treasured possessions, not weeds.

And, as she explains, in the world of oxalis collectors, they can be surprisingly valuable.

Recently on TradeMe, one of her friends sold a single tiny Oxalis versicolor bulb - which produces a candy-cane type flower with white and red edges - for the grand sum of $101.

Anne has been collecting oxalis for three decades and now has about 60 or 70 different species and forms.

"I've had a love affair with oxalis for about 30 years," she says.

While a few weed types of oxalis have given the genus a bad reputation, in fact most cultivated types don't set seed and a lot can be difficult to grow, Anne says.

A self-confessed "collector of different things", Anne also collects plants in the onion species.

"I'm into all the things that are a bit promiscuous and spread around a bit," she laughs.

Anne says she got her first oxalis plant from her mother who was a keen gardener, and it was oxalis that kicked off her collecting habit.

The genus oxalis is said to make up the great majority of the 800 or so species in the Oxalidaceae family - a small family of eight genera of herbs, shrubs and small trees.

The New Zealand yam Oxalis tuberosa is a relative.

Oxalis are mainly from South Africa and Chile, Anne says, and most ornamental varieties prefer hot dry conditions, but not all.

One type from Chile, Oxalis ione hecker, needs to stand in water all year round because it's moisture loving, coming from a cold grassy area.

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Anne grows her oxalis in terracotta pots so they get a "baking" in the summer, but says they're also hardy in frosts.

Members of the Oxalidaceae family typically have leaflets showing "sleep movements", spreading open in light and closing in darkness.

Oxalis are extremely light sensitive, but when they're fully open, the show they put on is a delight.

Oxalis start flowering in autumn and continue right through winter.

"They're wonderful for the colour. It just gives you some colour in the garden."

Some oxalis plants look the same from a distance, but when seen up close are actually quite different in the shape of the flowers and bulbs, Anne says.

Not all have bulbs either. One variety, Oxalis peduncularis, shows off its yellow and burgundy flowers all year round, has a tuberous root, and is grown from cuttings.

Although most people associate oxalis with a clover-type leaf, there are in fact many other leaf forms, from those resembling five-finger leaves, to purple, whispy or speckled leaves.

"Some of them you wouldn't even think were an oxalis," Anne says.

The flowers can be one colour or multi-coloured, and some have one colour on the top side and a different colour on the underside of the petals.

Anne tries to repot her oxalis every year, using equal portions of good quality potting mix, coarse sand and pumice, and a little bit of blood and bone.

When not flowering the plants die right down, but up until that happens Anne waters them regularly.

She believes oxalis are growing in popularity, based on the demand for oxalis on Trade Me, and the $101 gained for the single dry bulb sold by her friend.

"It was quite a common one (variety) really," she says.

"I was just staggered at the price he got for it."

Anne took some oxalis to a recent cactus and succulent show in Hawkes Bay "and they just walked out the door".

She says Bay Nurseries in Richmond has a good selection of ornamental oxalis, and she has sourced new plants for her own collection through a network of oxalis collectors. No new oxalis plants are allowed to be brought into New Zealand, Anne says, so when one collector discovers another has a variety they haven't got it often generates a flurry of excitement.

"I think we just about have exhausted what's in the country."

However, word is spreading that growing in Anne's garden is an oxalis that has crossed between a white and a pink one, and it's generating excitement among oxalis collectors keen to get their hands on it.

"Several oxalis collectors have been at me wanting it," Anne grins.

- Nelson

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