Garden sorrel is a perennial herb, Rumex acetosa, that is grown for its tasty foliage. It’s a member of the Buckwheat family, Polygonaceae, and also known as common sorrel, spinach dock and narrow-leaved dock. Sorrel is popular in cuisines of Africa, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Belgium, Greece and Eastern Europe.
The leaves are arrow-shaped with a tendency to curl around the stem, especially when very young and emerging from the crown. Described as succulent and smooth, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked. This herb grows best in full sun, although it will adapt to areas with afternoon shade. It’s a hardy perennial that will return each spring, providing some of the earliest greens for harvest.
In the middle of summer a large flower stalk will rise up to 6 feet tall. If seeds are desired for propagation, let the flowering stalk mature and collect the seeds after they turn a dark brown. If more vegetative growth is desired, cut off the flower stalk as soon as it develops in order to promote further leaf growth.
The young leaves are best in the spring but sorrel can be harvested throughout the growing season. To keep fresh leaves handy at all times, cut back the whole plant to a couple of inches tall. The shoots will re-grow and young leaves can continue to be harvested. The roots run deep in this plant and must be dug up to remove it, else the regrowth will occur.
Young leaves taste best, so use this herb fresh in salads or on sandwiches. It can be used as cooked greens so the excess harvest can be frozen when using it like cooked spinach. It’s best to add sorrel to other greens and to eat it in mixtures with other herbs or leaf vegetables because of its high oxalic acid content. Oxalic acid provides the tart, sour or acid-lemon taste, but too much of it will lock up other nutrients in the meal, especially calcium. This means that sorrel will bind calcium and make it unavailable to the body. Eating small amounts is no problem.
As a springtime tonic sorrel is pureed in soups, sauces and beverages. Sorrel soup may be as simple as sorrel leaves, water and salt. Other ingredients may be added, including boiled eggs and boiled potatoes, and substituting broth for the water. A bowl of sorrel soup can be topped with a dollop of sour cream, minced chives or scallions, sliced cucumber, or croutons, and served hot or cold.