Bowie’s wood-sorrel (Oxalis bowiei), a South African species named for a long-dead Kew Gardens collector, and a covert and rarely collected weed of Melbourne and Victoria.
With large leaves and showy flowers, Bowie’s wood-sorrel was a popular Victorian era ornamental selection, and continues to be grown as a pot plant by bulb collectors. It was listed in the 1850-60s catalogues of Melbourne nurseries J. and J. Rule and Handasyde, McMillan, and of Geelong’s Thomas Adcock. Unfortunately, as with many Oxalis species, its bulbs become a persistent contaminant of soil and equipment in the managed environments of Australia, although the species does not appear to have the reach of more prolifically fragmentable cousins like Soursob and Fish-tail Oxalis.
Oxalis bowiei appears to have been first collected in Australia from southern inland NSW in 1913; further collections in that area followed in the 1940s, and then in Sydney in the 1950s. At the same time, it was also discovered in WA, and then in Victoria by the end of the 1950s. Today it is also present in South Australia, and the species has also formed escaped populations in Southern Europe and Japan.
There are just three collections of Bowie’s Wood-sorrel from Melbourne in the public databases: at Melbourne General Cemetery in 1959, from a Brighton residential garden in 1960, and in the RBG Melbourne in 2016, where it was an unaccessioned part of the living collection when it was found growing in five clumps beside a path in the Grey Garden. Plants have also been reported in Whittlesea, Croydon and from an old industrial site in Spotswood. Across the state’s west and north, it is known from a few scattered sites comprising another cemetery, a railway reserve and a highway embankment.
The photographed plants were present in the front garden of an East Melbourne terrace house. It is not clear if Oxalis bowiei entered the garden as a contaminant or in past intentional plantings—in the garden of today the plants have the feel of a weed, although perhaps not one that is entirely unwelcome.