An Ode to Sorrel

The endless winter is the reason why I love sorrel so much. One of the most important qualities of sorrel is that it is very early.

By Julie Boudreau

When you like to nibble on fresh veggies in the garden, winter is a real bummer! No more fresh vegetables, no more beautiful apples picked from the tree, no more handfuls of haskaps (honeyberries) to snack on. The endless winter is the reason why I love sorrel so much.

Common Sorrel in early summer. Image: Julie Boudreau.

One of the most important qualities of sorrel is that it is very early. As soon as the snow disappears, it emerges from the ground. It’s therefore the very first fresh leaf that can be eaten in the spring! Sorrel has a tangy taste which gives a nice bit of personality to the first salads of the season. Mix it with a few spinach leaves, early lettuces, young dandelion greens and arugula (another early green). From spring to fall, sorrel will be a perfect companion to add a sour touch to your dishes. Year after year, a plant of sorrel will produce enough leaves to be eaten mostly fresh, in salads or as decoration on soups.

As can be guessed by its early nature, common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a perennial that comes back year after year. It can grow for several decades in the same place and is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 7 (AgCan zones 3 to 8). It likes full sun and well-drained soil. Like many wild sorrels, it even manages to grow in very poor and rocky soils. It’s quite easy to find in the herb section of garden centers, but it can also be produced by seed. It’s very easy to grow from seed. Just sow it directly in the ground in spring.

The Three Sides of the Coin

Wow! You’ll say! It sounds like a miracle plant! How did I live without it for so many years? And it’s true that it’s a really easy plant to grow. However, you should know that sorrel is from the rhubarb family (Polygonaceae). Sorrel leaves therefore contain oxalates, which in high doses can lead to digestive disorders. It must be consumed in reasonable quantities. No need to plant three rows in the vegetable garden: two or three plants amply meet the needs imposed by its limited consumption!

The other underside of sorrel is that it’s often infested with leaf miners, small larvae that develop between the two layers of the leaf. These insects make the attacked leaf inedible. But no matter! Sorrel is such a generous plant, there are often more healthy leaves than damaged ones. To limit leaf miner infestations, remove the infected leaves as soon as possible. This prevents the larvae from completing their life cycle.

And finally, the third small detail that must be taken into account before committing to sorrel: the plant produces an impressive quantity of seeds and it reseeds easily. To prevent hours of weeding, simply cut the flower stalk to 15 cm (6 inches) above the ground. Very often, the first flowers coincide with the appearance of leaf miners. So that’s when I do a quick tour of my sorrel plants, to remove damaged leaves and future flower stalks.

In the Garden Or Vegetable Patch

Because it’s a beautiful plant in its own right, you can place sorrel at the edge of the vegetable garden, with other perennial herbs, but also in more ornamental borders. There are even beautiful variants, such as blood sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) which bears red-tinged foliage.

Other Tart-Tasting Plants

Blood Sorrel. Image: Buntysmum on pixabay

Lovers of edible wild plants will find the same tart flavor in sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which is a very invasive wild plant. It’s therefore best to forage for it the wild rather than introducing it into the garden. The leaves of wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), another common weed, also have that good, sour taste.

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

2 comments on “An Ode to Sorrel

  1. This was one of the greens that we enjoyed during the shut down when no one wanted to go to the market. It grows wild where the baseball field was. It is not common though, and another sorrel and another dock are more common. Most of the greens that last for a very long season are cruciferous.

  2. I surfed over to your article on red-veined sorrel, and in it you say that garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is “an incredibly invasive weed due to its wandering rhizomes and abundant self-sowing”. Yet in this article you like it. I’m sorta confused.

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