If you’ve eaten out in sophisticated restaurant lately, you may well have seen, in your salad or on an appetizer, a little heart-shaped leaf with deep red veins and a red petiole. What is it?
The plant behind the leaf, Rumex sanguineus sanguineus, has long been called bloody dock, but that name is not going over well with salad aficionados, so a new name, red-veined sorrel, has been invented and is catching on. Oddly enough, it’s a hardy perennial heretofore grown mostly as an ornamental: the “baby leaf” thing is a new twist on an old plant.
The little leaves are not just decorative, but tasty, with a tart flavor much like spinach (a close relative). And they’re certainly easy enough to grow.
One Plant, Two Ways of Growing It
You can grow red-veined sorrel in two different ways: as fast-growing annual or a long-lived perennial.
It’s being offered as an annual for salad production. Sow the seeds indoors or out (under intense light indoors). The seeds sprout quickly and produce harvestable baby leaves in about 40 days, larger but still edible ones in 55 days. You can also grow them as sprouts, harvesting even earlier. Eventually, the leaves lose their baby heart leaf shape and become long and narrow and too tough and bitter for the salad bar. When this happens, the plants are usually tossed into the compost.
Other sources offer red-vein sorrel as an ornamental perennial, usually an established plant in a 4-inch (10 cm) pot. Just plop it in the flower border and enjoy its pretty leaves.
It will form a plant about 12 to 15 inches (30–40 cm) high and 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter. The midsummer flower stalks are about 2 to 3 feet (60–90 cm) high, but are of little decorative interest and you can cut them off if you want. At any rate, the plant tends to go to pot if you let it bloom, taking on a straggly, unkempt appearance.
The leaves are evergreen in mild climates, but die back to various degrees in cold ones. Certainly, they hold on in my fall garden until covered by snow.
You can still harvest leaves from your perennial sorrel: in the spring, you can pick about half of the new leaves, but then leave the other half to let the plant recuperate. Then, about blooming time, you can cut the whole plant to the ground and it will produce a new crop. Again, harvest no more than half the leaves.
Don’t Eat Too Much!
Like many plants with a sweet-sour taste, including its cousin, spinach, red-vein sorrel contains oxalic acid, which can be toxic if eaten in great quantities. Limit servings to two cups per individual per meal. People subject to gout should avoid both sorrel and spinach.
Gardeners fighting to control garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), the leaf vegetable used to make French sorrel soup, but also an incredibly invasive weed due to its wandering rhizomes and abundant self-sowing, can relax with red-leaved sorrel. It produces no rhizomes, forming only a dense clump of leaves. It can self-sow if you let it bloom, but tends to do so only modestly.
The wild version of this plant (R. sanguineus), called wood dock, is entirely green and found throughout Eurasia and Northern Africa. The red-veined version (R. sanguineus sanguineus) pops up here and there throughout the plant’s natural range.
Growing Red-Leaf Sorrel
In the perennial border or vegetable garden, give red-leaf sorrel full sun to partial shade. It does fine in soil of varying quality, even poor soils, but does not like to dry out. In fact, in the wild it tends to grow near lakes and streams in evenly moist soil and it makes a fine marginal plant around a home water garden. Still, you can easily grow it under regular garden conditions, although in drier climates, some watering will be required. A good mulch will help keep sorrel moister and happier.
As for hardiness, red-veined sorrel will grow in zones 4 to 8, even zone 3 with good snow cover.
Red-leaf sorrel: from the salad bar to sprouts to your flower garden, it’s an attractive plant with multiple uses!