Garden Time: Temptingly Tart Sorrel Part I

French Sorrel - Image copyright Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

Spring had barely arrived before we were filling our salads and sandwiches with the crisp, lemony leaves of sorrel; one of our favorite perennial vegetables.  Once used extensively in North America as a flavorful green and medicinal herb, sorrel is rarely found in herb or vegetable gardens today.  If rare in the herb and vegetable garden, sorrel is almost entirely overlooked as an ornamental, where it easily adds visual zip and vertical structure to perennial flower gardens with its verdant green leaves and small but lovely reddish-brown flowers.  If you’ve never grown sorrel, or worse yet, have never eaten sorrel, then you are truly in for a mouth-watering treat.

There are several species of wild and cultivated sorrel present in North America, including garden varieties known as Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and French Sorrel (Rumex scutatus), as well as the wild and sometimes weedy ones such as Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and Red-veined Sorrel or Bloody Dock (Rumex sanguineus).  All of these plants belong to the Buckwheat Family (Polygonaceae), which also includes buckwheat, rhubarb, yellow dock, knotweed and pigweed.

All of these plants are both edible and medicinal to varying degrees.  French and Garden Sorrel are well-suited to garden cultivation, while those of wild nature are best left in their natural habitat and wild-foraged.  Either way, the one thing most sorrels have in common is their lemony-sour bite.

All sorrels are hardy, deep-rooted perennials that can grow up to 3 ft. (91 cm) tall.  When mature, each plant produces tall, whorled spikes of reddish green flowers and tiny brown seeds that finches and other seed-eating birds can’t resist.  The real difference with the sorrels are the size, shape, color, and taste of their leaves.

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) Image by Dinkum (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia CommonsCommon or Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a relatively large plant with long, oblate to lanceolate leaves that have slightly wavy tooth margins with long thin stems.  Cultivated varieties of this species may differ in leaf shape and size.  Compared to the robust nature of Garden Sorrel, the relatively diminutive French sorrel (R. scutatas) has distinctly arrow-shaped leaves.  Both species have a distinctly tangy-tart flavor and produce abundant panicles of star-shaped, yellow-green flowers early in the spring, followed by very small, reddish-brown seeds.

I think a lot of gardeners have read too much about sorrel needing the ‘perfect’ environment in which to grow and have come to regard it as a difficult plant to grow.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Sorrel will grow in most soils, even clay.  It is a hardy perennial that prefers full sun to light shade and cool weather.  As soon as it warms up in spring, sorrel with bolt with abandon.

The hardest part about growing sorrel is waiting for the plant to become fully established, which can take up to three growing seasons.  New plants should be spaced or thinned to stand 8 to 12 in. (20 to 30 cm) apart and mature plants divided every 5 years or so.

Sorrel is a persistent and early bolter and you will need to cut back the flowering shoots before they get too large to prevent bitterness and encourage tender new leaves.  Keep in mind that no matter what you do, sorrel will become bitter during the hottest part of summer.  This is a good time to allow the plant to flower and set seed.   If you don’t want seeds shattering all over the garden, simply wait until the flowering stalks begin to set seed and enclose them in a bag made of poly spun fiber or a sheer window curtain tied tightly around the base of the stems.  As cooler fall temperatures arrive, cut the plant almost to the ground to encourage a new flush of sweet, tender leaves.

Violet Wood Sorrel - Image copyright Jill HendersonAlthough the pretty little wild or wood sorrel common in North America share a similar acidic and lemony taste, their clover-like leaves clearly distinguish them as belonging to a different genus altogether.  Members of the wood sorrel family, Oxalidaceae, are not recommended for medicinal or culinary use.

One of the things I love about this wonderful plant is that it is almost completely carefree once established.  It also produces an abundance of tart-sweet, lemony leaves in early spring just when we need them most.  As other greens begin to mature in the garden, the sorrel is left to bolt, attracting a wide array of butterflies and beneficial pollinators (as is so common among most members of the Buckwheat family).  And in the fall, when the lettuce and spinach are but a memory, the sorrel is again ready and waiting to tempt our taste buds with a little taste of spring.

You can read more about how to use sorrel in the kitchen and as an effective medicinal in my book, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore or from Amazon.

Caution: Sorrel contains the organic compounds oxalic acid and anthraquinone, both known laxatives that can be irritating and mildly toxic when consumed in quantity over a long period of time.  Periodic and limited consumption of leaves and tea are generally not thought to be a concern for healthy individuals.  However, anyone prone to kidney stones, arthritis, or gout should avoid regular consumptions and medicinal use of sorrel.

© 2014 Jill Henderson – Feel free to share or repost with permission.


The Garden Seed Saving Guide by Jill HendersonExcerpted in part from my book:
The Garden Seed Saving Guide

Whether you’re a weekend gardener, homesteader, or serious survivalist, saving seeds is a money saving skill that every green-thumb should to have. An excellent resource for beginners and experienced gardeners alike, The Garden Seed Saving Guide takes you step-by-step through every aspect of saving seeds. If you want to save money, become more self-sufficient and avoid genetically modified food crops, The Garden Seed Saving Guide is for you.  Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.


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