Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Common Sorrel, Broad Leaf Sorrel, Cuckoo Sorrow, Cuckoo’s Meate, Spinach Dock, Sour Dock
About This Plant
Garden Sorrel, also known as Broad Leaf or Common Sorrel, has been cultivated for hundreds of years as a versatile “herb-vegetable” – it can be cooked and treated as a vegetable while also having a distinctive, lemony flavor like an herb. It has long been valued as one of the earliest green crops to appear in the garden each Spring, while also being naturalized all over Europe and elsewhere, making it a forager’s delight. Garden Sorrel grows about two feet tall and equally wide. It is cold-hardy, growing as a perennial in USDA zones 5 and above, and can be grown as an annual elsewhere.
Garden Sorrel grows in almost all soils and situations. It is native to Europe and Asia and is a common wild plant, growing abundantly in meadows and pastures, deciduous woodlands, roadsides, and wastelands throughout Europe from the northern Mediterranean coast to northern Scandinavia and in parts of Central Asia along with North America and New Zealand where it was introduced. Along with having medicinal attributes, it’s a common ingredient in the cuisines of France, Greece, India, Nigeria, Jamaica, and Vietnam.
Garden Sorrel is loved for its sour, acidic, tangy lemon-y sharp twang of flavor. Its juicy stems and leaves pack a potent astringency that may make you pucker up as a result of its oxalic acid content. Of the different species of Sorrel that can be found the world over, Garden Sorrel is considered the most strongly flavored.
Garden Sorrel has large, oblong, arrow-shaped leaves that emerge from a dense basal clump. The lower leaves are 3-6” in length with long petioles or stems. Its upper leaves lack stems and frequently become crimson in color. The plant in general is a bright, emerald-green hue and often has a reddish tinge when it is young. Its leaves are anywhere from smooth to crinkled. The plant sends up a flower stalk, typically in the months of June and July, with whorled spikes of reddish-green to brown flowers that become purplish in color as they increase in size. Garden Sorrel has both male and female plants with stamens and pistils on different plants. The seeds, when ripe, are brown and shiny. Its perennial roots run deeply into the ground.
The ancient Romans and Egyptians were already attuned to Garden Sorrel’s digestive benefits. During the Middle Ages, it was valued for its use in preventing scurvy. In ancient Europe, Sorrel was used to add a sour tang to dishes prior to the arrival of citrus to that area of the world. As a wild, edible food, Sorrel was once known as a “poor man’s herb” because of its ready availability to foragers. In Canada, Sorrel has been used for over a century in the treatment of breast cancer.
There are multiple types of Sorrel, including Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), Wood Sorrel, Blood Sorrel (R. sanguineus), and French Sorrel (Rumex Scutatus). French Sorrel and Garden Sorrel are the two types most commonly used in cooking. French Sorrel has pointy leaves, is smaller, growing to about 12” tall, and considered to have a more subtle lemony flavor than Garden Sorrel. French Sorrel prefers to grow in a dryer, more sunny location while Garden Sorrel prefers wetter conditions. Don’t confuse the Sorrels with Roselle (Hibiscus Sabdariffa), the Hibiscus family shrub that is commonly called Jamaican Sorrel. The two plants are not related. The Sorrels are all members of the Polygonaceae family which includes Rhubarb, Dock, and Buckwheat. The Latin genus name, Rumex means “I suck” – apparently Roman soldiers and field workers were fond of sucking on the plants to relieve thirst. The name “Sorrel” comes from the old French surele which derived from sur, meaning “sour”. Acetosa means vinergary, sour, or pungent.
As a very hardy plant, Garden Sorrel can be directly sown into your garden beds as early as two to three weeks before the average date of the last frost in Spring. It can also be directly sown in Autumn. Plant the seeds ½” deep and 2-3” apart. Sorrel will be harvestable size about 60 days after planting the seeds. Garden Sorrel can also be propagated by root division or cuttings, either of which can be done in Spring or early Fall.
Garden Sorrel plants can be thinned to about 12” apart when they are about 6 weeks old. Rows should be spaced about 18-24” apart. Sorrel commonly grows in clumps of several plants and they do produce a long taproot, so take care if attempting to transplant it. If you wish to keep it from self-seeding, chose to transplant only the male, flowerless plants and harvest, or compost the rest.
Garden Sorrel prefers a sunny spot to grow, though a bit of partial shade will keep it going longer into the Summer. It likes reasonably fertile and moisture-retentive soil that is rich in organic matter. It will benefit from getting a side-dressing of compost about mid-Summer. It prefers cooler conditions more than hot, so some shade is needed in hot climates. With its deep taproot, it can be relatively easy to care for. Keep its growing area weed-free. Garden Sorrel will grow well in containers as long as they are at least 12” deep and 12” wide.
When Garden Sorrel starts to form its flowering shoots, the leaves will become tougher and less flavorful, so it’s a good idea to cut off the flowering stems as they appear for as long as possible. The plants usually bolt as the Summer temperatures begin to soar in June or July. The plant can even be cut all the way back to the ground and it will produce a new crop of foliage.
Once Garden Sorrel is established, leaves can be harvested at any time, once the leaves are about 4” long it can be treated as a “cut and come again” crop. Harvest the outermost leaves first, leaving those in the center so the plant continues to grow. The leaves tend to taste very mild in the early Spring and gradually gain their characteristic acidity as the season progresses. The greens don’t last long once cut and should be used the same day they are harvested. The plants should be divided every three to four years to keep them growing vigorously. A plant can produce greens for eight to ten years. Garden Sorrel will self-sow freely and tends to grow in a small patch of several plants. In the early Fall, you can thin out the less healthy plants to ensure an optimal crop the following Spring. It can become weedy in many climates. The leaves can be frozen or dried as you would any herb, but the flavor will not compare to when it is eaten fresh. Aphids, flies, and slugs can be an issue with Garden Sorrel. The leaves are also eaten by several species of Lepidoptera, both butterfly and moth.
Garden Sorrel bolts and shoots up its flowering stalks mid-Summer, which eventually adorn themselves with thousands of dangling, flat seeds. Simply wait for the flower heads to dry and collect the mature seed.
Garden Sorrel, with its lemony zing, adds a brightness to heavy meat dishes and compliments basically any dish that could benefit from a squeeze of lemon juice. It is often combined with rich ingredients, such as salmon, creamy cheeses, and egg dishes, as it can easily overpower milder dishes. Depending upon your tastes, you may find that a few leaves go a long way.
Garden Sorrel is a nutritional powerhouse, containing lots of vitamin C, B1, and B2 as well as magnesium, iron, copper, and provitamin A. You can break the stems off backward to pull out any tough strings that continue up the middle of the leaf before using. The larger leaves are best cooked while the young leaves are tender and good eaten raw. The mature leaves can be quite intense in flavor. When Sorrel is heated and cooked, the flavor is slightly mellowed, so you can be more generous in what you add to cooked dishes. Sorrel has a high acid content so it’s best to use stainless steel utensils and cookware if cooking it as aluminum and cast-iron dishes can affect the flavor. The juice of the leaves will curdle milk as well as rennet.
Garden Sorrel cooks down quickly in a saute pan and will get “mushy”, making it ideal for blending into sauces and soups. One traditional use is to beat it into a mash, mixing it with vinegar and sugar and using it as a green sauce with cold meat. “Sorrel Sauce” can also be made with heavy cream, butter, and stock for a rich green sauce. The sauce is a good accompaniment with fatty or oily fish to lighten up the flavor. In French cuisine, fish is traditionally cooked with Sorrel because its acidity is said to dissolve thin fish bones. Sorrel Soup is a classic French dish made with Sorrel, green onions, stock, cream, and egg yolks. Sorrel can be made into a sharp side dish to balance the heaviness of red meat, roasts, and stews.
The fresh greens should only be rinsed quickly before use and never soaked for long. The large leaves should be cooked, rather than eaten fresh to mellow their strong flavor. Sorrel can be also be used fresh in salads, giving the salads an acidic bump in flavor without the use of vinegar or lemon juice. Try a salsa verde made with Sorrel, Mint, and Parsley, or toss a bit into pasta dishes, or wilt it into soup. Sorrel can be used to enliven rice or grain dishes, or you can wrap beef or fish in the leaves before grilling. Sorrel is often used fresh and raw in Vietnamese and Asian recipes while in the West it tends to be used more often cooked or creamed. In parts of the world, such as France, it’s a common garden vegetable and can be found at most produce stands.
Garden Sorrel gets its zing from its oxalic-acid content. The high oxalic-acid content is a concern for some people with certain conditions such as kidney stones, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout. Large amounts of Oxalic acid can increase the risk of kidney stones. Opinions differ on this, however, with many saying that Sorrel poses no greater risk than foods such as carrots, rhubarb, asparagus, or green tea, provided it’s eaten in moderate amounts, not in excess.
Garden Sorrel is a highly nutritious plant. It was used in the olden days to prevent scurvy, rightfully so as it possesses an elevated amount of vitamin C. It also has high levels of folic acid (B9), and magnesium which contribute to the healthy upkeep of the immune and nervous system. It contains many phenolic compounds which have powerful antioxidant activity, supporting overall cardiovascular health. It is an excellent source of potassium and has diuretic and laxative properties. Its topical use as a poultice is known to speed the maturing of abscesses and heal wounds.
Garden Sorrel has been used traditionally for reducing pain and inflammation of the nasal passages and respiratory tract. Sorrel contains tannins which have a drying effect and can reduce mucous production. It has been used in the treatment of bacterial infections. Sorrel is considered a “cooling” herb, making it helpful for all types of swellings and inflammatory conditions. It has been used to treat fevers, skin tumors, jaundice, and internal ulcers along with treating wounds like sores, cruises, boils, and chickenpox. Sorrel is also an ingredient in the Canadian cancer treatment Essiac.
Garden Sorrel is native to Europe and Asia. It has been naturalized in many places around the world.