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Try drought-tolerant sorrel in your edible landscape

June 16, 2012
Marybeth Kampman

My sister recently housesat for me while I was traveling. When I returned she raved about the bounty of my garden but complained that the spinach tasted a bit tart. Since there was no spinach growing in my garden I was puzzled. Then I realized that she had been eating sorrel, which was growing quite vigorously.

To my sister's credit, to the untrained eye, sorrel is easily mistaken for spinach. It is a perennial, native to Europe and Asia. Europeans have long used garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) for culinary and medicinal uses. In the Middle Ages, a milder flavored sorrel (Rumex scutatus) was developed in Italy and France and it is commonly known as French sorrel.

Sorrel is sometimes referred to as sour dock. "Dock" refers to broad-leaved plants or herbs, all of which belong to the botanical family of Polygonaceae and are informally known as knotweeds. The name refers to the swollen nodes on the stems of some of the species making them look jointed. "Poly" means many, and "goni" means knee or joint.

Many docks are considered as weeds, such as the common wayside dock (Rumex obtusifolius) that has coarse inedible leaves. It is found in fields and is even spurned by cattle. However, some docks are cultivated, notably the familiar garden rhubarb (for its stems — not the poisonous leaves) and garden sorrel.

Sorrel is a cool season crop that does best if planted in the early spring or fall. It is easily planted from seed or can be propagated by root division. It grows best in a sunny spot in rich, well-dug soil, but it will tolerate some shade. Hot weather increases the acidity of the leaves.

Sorrel is very easy to grow; in fact, once it has taken hold in your garden it may be hard to get rid of, as it easily self seeds. It is drought resistant and pretty indestructible. To maintain plenty of fresh tender leaves and encourage leaf growth, remove the flower stalks to prevent them from going to seed.

Sorrel leaves can grow to be quite large, up to 18 inches. They are easily harvested by breaking them off from the stem. It is fun to plant sorrel in a bed or box along with other greens, such as spinach or endive, so that they can be combined for cooking and salad-making purposes. The leaves taste best harvested when they are young and tender. It is always best to harvest greens early in the morning before they are in full sun so that they retain their crispness.

Because of its tenacity, sorrel is a good addition to your edible landscape plan. Before you plant you may want to be aware of the difference between garden sorrel (Rumex acetosus) and French sorrel (Rumex scutatus).

Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosus) is erect and has many branched stems and deep roots. The leaves are large, narrow and arrow shaped. They may be tinged with red when they are young. They have a more bitter, tangy taste that is unpleasant to some palates. The leaves grow out from a thick basal cluster. Garden sorrel produces small reddish green flowers.

French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is preferred for cooking and eating. You can recognize it by its prostrate or ascending stems that form thick clumps. The leaves are wider and shield shaped. They have a very distinct lemon taste. The flowers of French sorrel are small and green and turn reddish brown at maturity.

French sorrel is the preferred sorrel for culinary use. It can be added to salads, omelets and its tangy lemony flavor is a nice addition to chicken and fish dishes. Use it as a substitution or complement to dishes calling for spinach or chard. I have also made a delicious fresh pesto by throwing fistfuls of sorrel with a bit of olive oil and garlic into the food processor.

It is the main ingredient of the classic French "soupe aux herbes." Not surprisingly this soup is made up of springtime vegetables commonly found in a classic French "potager" or kitchen garden. Like any French recipe worth its name, it includes cream. The cream offsets the tanginess of the sorrel.

Traditionally sorrel has been used as a folk medicine. It was used as an antiseptic and because of its high vitamin C content as a cure for scurvy. It is also very high in vitamin A and a good source of iron. It was prepared as a balm or salve to cure skin disorders. It was also brewed as tea and used as a diuretic.

Along with its beneficial attributes, eating sorrel comes with precautions. It is very high in oxalic acid, which may cause kidney stones in individuals prone to kidney disease. It is not recommended in large amounts for individuals suffering from gout, arthritis or rheumatism.

Drought tolerant, easy to grow, attractive, tasty and healthy, sorrel is a definite asset to any kitchen garden. 

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