I’m bent over double in the courtyard, teasing, tweezing—easy now, firmly but care…fully…
“Lizard? Got a lizard?”
That’s Jimmy, bursting through the monkey grass. At last, his expression tells me, I may be into something that can animate a cat.
“No, Jimmy,” I have to say. “Oxalis.”
Say you have a youngster at home who has got the impression that your friend coming to dinner is a pirate. And you have to say, “Well, no…he works at the Bi-Rite.”
Not that there would be anything wrong with that. Do you know the Osborne’s Bi-Rite market on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville? Whenever Joan, Jimmy, and I spend the night in Nashville, driving, we stop by the Bi-Rite the next morning for deviled eggs, chicken, cornbread muffins. You could get the meat-and-three plates, if you could keep them warm till lunchtime. Talk about something worth preserving: a good neighborhood grocery store, with homemade stuff to go.
But while an employee of the Bi-Rite might wear a do-rag, as the buccaneers did, he wouldn’t go arrrrrh and carry a cutlass.
Here’s what I’m saying: I realize I don’t appear to be doing anything downright mythic when I’m pulling up oxalis. The bad kind of oxalis, that is: the voracious little faux-clover weed also known as creeping wood sorrel. Jimmy can’t appreciate what pains I am going to, even though I am going to those pains for him.
When the monkey grass is lush, Jimmy loves to wriggle around—and, yes, terrorize lizards—in it. If I let oxalis run rampant, it will steal nutrients from the monkey grass, causing it to wither, which will really disappoint the cat.
Jimmy’s interests aside, there’s the challenge posed by oxalis. The mythic challenge.
Ian Willson works at Turkey and the Wolf, one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. In 2017 Bon Appetit called it “the number-one new restaurant in America.” Among its specialties is the collard-green melt sandwich. If I were offered one of those sandwiches right now, I would drop this column in the middle of this paragraph and catch you later. (And the deviled eggs come with a fried-chicken-skin garnish and house-made hot sauce.)
Willson is also a founder of Southbound Gardens, which produces all-natural plants right here in New Orleans. Under the inspired cognomen of “Dirt Nerd,” Willson publishes gardening pamphlets, in one of which he writes:
“I, your urban farmer with all the answers guy, find oxalis absolutely impossible to beat.…The tiny nut-like nodules that constitute oxalis roots pretty much never come up with the rest of the plant when you tug at them, and if you do not pull up the little guy when you pull up the leafy bits, more leafy bits will come.”
This from a man who has described weeding, in general, as “an art form at least as subtle as fly-fishing.”
Now hear this, from me: When I pull up oxalis, I get the nodule nearly half the time! From our courtyard over the last two months I have pulled up over two thousand with-nodule oxalises.
Oxalising is in fact a lot like fishing: Keep your line (that is, the oxalis’s stalk) taut. Don’t jerk. Sometimes you can slide a trowel up under several close-together oxalises, and loosen ’em up for the picking, but that’s a little like dynamiting fish. A little. I don’t want to exaggerate.
I use the term mythic, however, as above, advisedly. Look up “oxalis weed new orleans” and you will find Dr. Joe Willis, extension agent for Orleans Parish at the LSU Agricultural Center, regarding bad oxalis:
“‘The only way you can totally eradicate it [without resorting to herbicides that will kill the plants around it] is to use your trowel and pop up every single bulb,’ [Dr. Joe] said, describing a chore of Sisyphean futility.”
Okay, it wasn’t Dr. Joe who used the term Sisyphean, it was R. Stephanie Bruno, author of the article at nola.com. But no one who has ever struggled with bad oxalis will reject the invocation of Sisyphus—who was condemned by Zeus or somebody to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill until, at the top, the boulder would roll back down for Sisyphus to roll back up again.
Futility? Maybe. But the monkey grass can survive a small dose of oxalis. Maybe, just maybe, I can wear the boulder down to a rock.
That’s all Greek to Jimmy, of course.