We often make excuses for letting dandelions grow in our lawns. The leaves make great salad greens, and the flowers are often pressed for wine. But another foraging plant, common sorrel, also makes a great garden ornamental and kitchen herb while preventing your neighbors from giving you dirty looks.
Rumex acetosa has several common names, including dock, spinach dock, sheep sorrel, and garden sorrel. Acetum means "vinegar" and tart sorrel is indeed a saucy little vixen whether you use her in the kitchen or let her show off her flashy burgundy blooms.
We said "blooms," not "bloomers." Do we need to remind you that this is a family blog?
Origins and Cultural History
Sorrel is native to Eurasia, but here in North America, it's naturalized above the Mason-Dixon line (and a titch below), from western Alaska and Canada's southern provinces south to parts of Georgia. It's a grassland dweller or riparian plant in northern U.S. states, with a little bit of John Denver in its blood; as it travels south it prefers higher elevations, woodland meadows, and forest margins, even thriving as an understory plant.
Don't confuse Rumex acetosa with oxalis or wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). The latter looks nothing like common sorrel, having large, clover-type leaves.
Because it's so widespread, the USDA Department of Agriculture considers sorrel an invasive weed in 23 states. While many domestic and wild animals, including game birds, will happily forage on the leaves and seeds, in high concentrations sorrel is considered toxic to cattle, sheep, and horses due to its high oxalic acid content.
Sorrel has a history as a forage food for several North American aboriginal tribes. In England and Ireland, peasants would make "green sauce," a combination of mashed sorrel, vinegar, and sugar to serve with cold meats.
Sorrel as a Medicinal Herb
Sorrel isn't often used in contemporary herbal medicine, though it does have a reputation among 18th-century English botanists for aiding in a multitude of maladies.
R. acetosa is one of the ingredients in the controversial herbal recipe branded as Essiac®, created by a Canadian nurse in the 1920s. Rene Caisse (1888-1978) claimed that her concoction could treat cancer. Though scientific studies on the recipe have never been able to confirm her reports, the product remains a popular natural supplement among those living with cancer.
In less modern times, the roots, leaves, and flowers from Rumex acetosa plants have been put into service as an astringent, as a refreshing, "cooling" beverage, and to treat the following:
- Sore throat
- Ulcerated bowels
- Skin boils (to help burst them), possibly during the Plagues
- Scorpion stings
- Ringworm and intestinal parasites
(OK, we're definitely off our feed and thoroughly grossed out right about now.)
Sorrel is rich in tannins, which are said to help dry up mucous membranes, thus reducing cold symptoms. It's also a good source of vitamin C, which explains its use to treat scurvy. Sorrel also contains vitamins A and B-6, calcium, potassium, and iron.
Rumex acetosa's high levels of oxalic acid can cause problems with people dealing with kidney stones or other kidney issues. In spite of this, sorrel has a history of treating urinary tract infections and kidney problems.
Sorrel in the Garden
Rumex acetosa looks much like a run-of-the-mill salad green, but then it throws you a loop. Sorrel sends up showy, spindly spikes covered in unusual flowers. According to some plant nerds, male plants have light-green lantern-shaped flowers, and their female counterparts one-up them with pinkish-red displays of "LOOK AT ME!"
Other botanists say that the flower color isn't dependent upon the plant's sex, but that the green turns to red as the plants age.
Growing Zones: Sorrel is usually grown as perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 7. It's frost tolerant, thrives in cooler temperatures, and rebounds each spring after winter dormancy.
Soil Requirements: Sorrel prefers well-drained, rich soil for optimum production. Amend your soil with compost to give young plants a boost, or just stick it anywhere it won't get soggy if you're just growing it as an ornamental. Aim for a pH of 5.5 to 6.8, erring on the acidic side. Note, naturally acidic soils tend to be low in iron, so adding a bit of chelated iron as a soil amendment will improve sorrel's vigor as well as that of other acid-loving plants. Yellowing leaves is a sign of iron deficiency.
Watering Requirements: Keep your sorrel plants moist, but not wet; plan to treat it to about an inch of water per week.
Sunlight Requirements: In cooler climates, plant your sorrel in full sun. It will tolerate partial shade in hotter regions, or areas with harsh afternoon sun. In the wild, it often grows at the base of ferns and other plants found in low-density forests, so there's plenty of latitude for experimentation.
Growth Habits: Sorrel leaves grow on succulent, upward-growing stems. This bunching plant looks and grows much like spinach. It's a deep-rooted plant, making it somewhat more drought-resilient than other salad-type greens, and it propagates both by reseeding and through spreading rhizomes.
Size: 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide, sorrel is a compact plant.
Flowers: Sorrel typically blooms June to mid-August, possibly well into fall under optimal conditions.
Foliage: Sorrel leaves are light to medium green, 3 to 6 inches long, and shaped like broad spearheads. They have a slightly crumpled texture and look like they belong in a mixed salad. Because, folks, they do!
Aroma: Sorrel plants don't have a noticeable fragrance in the garden.
Companion Plants: Sorrel can be grown among any other cool-season vegetables with similar growing conditions. In spite of its sour flavor, it has a sweet, neighborly personality.
Growing Sorrel from Seed
You won't find sorrel in your neighborhood grocery store, so if you want to add it to your menu—and you're not interested in traipsing around the countryside foraging for food like Bear Grylls (who only eats hotel fare, anyway) you've gotta plant your own.
When to Plant: We recommend direct-sowing your sorrel seeds as early as three weeks before the last spring frost. You can start your seedlings indoors for early spring transplantation, though unless you live in or near the North Pole, it's not necessary.
Planting Depth: Sow your seeds in fine soil 1/4" to 1/2" deep.
Spacing: If direct-seeded, you can sow or thin the plants as close as six inches apart, but mature plants prefer about 12" space in each direction.
Germination: Sorrel's round, shiny seeds will germinate in 7 to 21 days. Cold stratification or an overnight soak will ease its progress, but it's not necessary.
Maintenance: Be sure to deadhead spent flowers; this plant reseeds easily. Sorrel plants should be replaced after three or four seasons, so if they keel over or lose their vigor around that time, it's not your fault. Mulching your sorrel plants in hot weather will keep the soil consistently moist.
Pests and Diseases: Sorrel doesn't have any particular problems with pests or diseases, though you'll want to keep an eye out for the usual suspects: Snails, slugs, and aphids.
Harvesting: Sorrel reaches maturity in about 60 days. The more often you harvest individual leaves, the more sorrel thrives. Pick leaves from the outside in for ongoing harvests when the plant is at least four inches tall, or approximately 35-40 days old. Sorrel leaves take on a stronger flavor after flowering. Tender young leaves are best for salads, and older leaves flavor stews and sauteed greens.
Sorrel's flavor has been compared to tart apples with a lemony twang. Augment sauteed kale, collards, chard, or spinach with sorrel to add a bit of zest, or slice the leaves into slivers to add to soups and salads. It's used as an alternative to slices of cow rumen to serve as a natural rennet for curdling cheese, and in Europe, it's commonly served with fish and eggs.
Polish Sorrel Soup: Called zupa szczawiowa in Poland, this is just one of several European sorrel soup recipes. The Spruce Eats links a couple other interesting dishes from this page, including Polish spring beet soup and schav borscht, a Jewish twist on the Russian/Ukraine shchavelya sup.
A Variety of Sorrel Recipes from Mariquita Farm will keep you cooking for quite some time, with a few additional notes on how you can throw a bit of sorrel into your own favorite dishes to give them that extra zing.
- Beet Salad with Sorrel with Pistachio Dressing
- Penne with Mushrooms and Fresh Sorrel
- Leek and Sorrel Pancakes with Smoked Salmon (We dare you!)
- Apple Sorbet With Sorrel
- Carrot Sorrel Juice
- Sorrel Sauce for Fish
- Sorrel Vichyssoise (we think this means "sorrel soup")
- Sorrel and Goat Cheese Quiche (Because goats rule.)
- Cream of Sorrel Soup (Because like we said, there are a gazillion takes on sorrel soup)
- Sorrel Pesto (also recommended as a sauce for fish)
- Sorrel Omelet
There is no lack of recipes out there for you to try out after growing sorrel from seed, and we always look forward to finding out which ones become your favorites.
Sorrel's Sour, but Gardening Should be Sweet
Some of the biggest frustrations gardeners have are managing soil quality, experiencing low germination rates from outdated seeds, and not finding enough time to get out and get dirty. When you have Seed Needs' fresh, high-quality seeds harvested from vigorous parent plants, you've got a broader margin of error, and you won't end up staring at vacant seed trays and "bleh" plants.We hope you take advantage of our wide variety of hand-packaged seeds, and we're always here for you if you have any questions!