It seems there is always room for just one more plant in the herb garden, and while poking through catalogs I was reminded of an old favorite — sorrel.
Sorrel is a hardy perennial that appears early in spring and lasts to fall. It is an herb that is most commonly used as a salad green and, not being one of the more elite herbs, suffers from benign neglect in the garden and the kitchen. Sorrel has tangy, lemon-flavored leaves that add zest to a salad or any dish, for that matter. These leaves, packed with nutrition and flavor, can be eaten raw or cooked and used anywhere a lemon flavor is welcome.
There are two types of sorrel used in the kitchen — garden and French. Garden, or broad leaf, sorrel (Rumex acetosa) has grown wild for centuries throughout Europe, Asia, Scandinavia, and North America.
It has a broad-based, spear-shaped leaf that resembles spinach. It can bolt to a height of 2 feet or more but is best when consistently harvested throughout summer. It also flowers easily — growing on long, reddish-green spikes — and once flowers appear, they should be removed to keep the plant bushy and to ensure a continued supply of succulent, young, fresh leaves.
Another variety introduced in the 17th century, the finer-flavored French, or Buckler leaf, sorrel, (Rumex scutatus) is a smaller plant of 6 to 18 inches. It boasts a milder, but still interesting, lemon zest. As sorrel matures, it becomes more acidic. Dried sorrel has little flavor at all.
Propagate both sorrels from seed in spring or by dividing roots at the end of summer. A sorrel plant will last for years, but it is a good idea to dig it up and divide it every five or so years. Garden sorrel thrives in a damp soil in sun or light shade, but French sorrel prefers a dryer soil in an open, sunny spot. Both should be kept watered to keep the leaves juicy.
These two culinary sorrels are part of the larger buckwheat (Polygonaceae) family and like any extended family tree, there are the good and not-so-good members. To many, sorrel is a wild meadow weed that plagues pristine hay meadows, but garden and French sorrel should not be confused with their troublesome cousins: red sorrel (often called sheep sorrel), or curly dock (often called sour or yellow dock).
And let’s not get started on the weed woodsorrel, which is not in any way related to the sorrels and the docks.
Rather than dwell on the cousins, I prefer to pass on the lore that the cuckoo bird ate garden sorrel to clear his voice and that later, in more modern times, on hot summer days at the height of the hay season, the haymakers frequently would eat the succulent leaves to quench their thirst. So, salad green or throat lozenge, sorrel need not be relegated to the insignificant category but rather used to add some zip to our palates.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.