Horticulture Magazine

Sorrel Herb Care & Growing Tips

sorrel growing in a vegetable patch

Sorrel Overview

Official Plant NameRumex acetosa
Common Name(s)Sorrel
Plant TypeHerb / Perennial
Native AreaEurope / Central America
Hardiness RatingH3-H4
ToxicityEdible
FoliageSome retain leaves all year
FlowersTall spikes reddish flowers
When To SowFebruary, March, April, May, June, July, August
Harvesting MonthsApril, May, June, July, August, September, October
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun or Partial Shade

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
0.1 – 0.5M

Spread
0.1 – 0.5M

Bloom
Flowers nipped off where self-seeding not wanted

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

Sorrel may have been flying under your Herbs-and-Spices Radar but once you grow and use this very versatile herb, it will stay on your radar for a long time. This plant is not difficult to grow, it is quite easy to care for, and you can use it for soups, salads, and sauces, and even as a leafy vegetable.

If you’re into multi-cultural cuisine and like to prepare dishes from all round the world, the herb you have to have is Sorrel, sometimes incorrectly called ‘Dock.’ Unlike rosemary, thyme, and such, Sorrel is what you make of it – or, in fact, what various nations make of it. There’s one word that best describes this tangy-citrusy leaf: Versatile. It can be a veggie, an appetizer, a soup, a salad, a sauce, and . . . well, a herb! 

Several edible varieties of ‘Sorrel’ are found but these straddle two different genera, Rumex and Oxalis. To compound the confusion, many a species in each genus is also informally known as ‘Dock’ with a preceding qualifier! We feel that the low-growing plants of either genus that are primarily used as leafy greens and herbs should be called Sorrel, and the taller plants, again of either genus, that are predominantly used as curatives and medications, especially topical, should be called ‘Dock.’

What all species of both genera and all Sorrels have in common is that they contain oxalic acid to some or another degree; indeed the very name of one of the genera, ‘Oxalis,’ points to this. The difference is that Rumex belongs to Family Polygonaceae while Oxalis to Family Oxalidaceae. The Polygonaceae Family is informally known as the Knotweed Family or Buckwheat Family and includes Rhubarb among its edible plants.

Rumex species comprise principally of herbs, medicinal plants, and  leafy vegetables (not often seen as such in the West), and Oxalis of delightfully pretty flowering perennial shrubs and also edible plants. As Genus Oxalis Sorrels are often qualified as ‘Wood Sorrel,’ perhaps Rumex’s species should be qualified as ‘Herb Sorrels.’

Rumex acetosa or Common Sorrel is the ‘Herb Sorrel’ or the Sorrel herb. It includes several varieties.

fresh sorrel leaves on a white background
Delightfully Green, Arrowhead-Shaped Leaves of Garden Sorrel

The Common Sorrel that is most ‘commonly’ used as a herb in the United Kingdom and that used to be grown in cottage gardens is called – not too surprisingly – ‘Garden Sorrel.’ It is called ‘English Sorrel’ in the United States. Then there is also a French Sorrel – in fact, there are two French Sorrels. Both Sorrel De Belleville and Round-Leaved Sorrel are colloquially known as ‘French Sorrel.’ Sorrel De Belleville is one of the varieties of Rumex acetosa. In contrast, Round-Leaved Sorrel is a different species, Rumex scutatus. 

All three varieties are leafy herbs and all three are herbal culinary ingredients.

Though Round-Leaved Sorrel (or Round-Leaf Sorrel) may popularly be called ‘French Sorrel’ in the U.K. and U.S., the herb so much in favour with French chefs and used for the preparation of Sorrel Sauce is Sorrel De Belleville though Round-Leaved Sorrel also has its culinary uses and its enthusiasts.

Background and Origins

The Wood Sorrels should not be confused with Sorrel herbs. As outlined earlier, the former comprise of various flowering plants, edible plants, and also some small trees in Genus Oxalis which, in fact, is not even a member of the Polygonaceae family. However, some Wood Sorrel leaves are also edible and they too contain lesser or greater quantities of oxalic acid. Many perennial species of Wood Sorrel that have clumping or creeping forms are of more value for their simple but exceedingly pretty small flowers, and for making lovely groundcover.

Ancient texts point to a Mediterranean origin for Sorrel herbs. Evidently they have been a culinary ingredient for centuries in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and in Imperial Rome. More ‘recently’ in Mediaeval Times Sorrel was often grown in kitchen gardens in Europe. Not only was it valued as a herb, it was also consumed as a leafy green and used as the basis for a tart sauce.

Among the various species and varieties of Herb Sorrel, several of the most useful ones are outlined underneath. 

Rumex sanguineus leaves on a wooden table
Rumex sanguineus or ‘Blood Dock’ – an Appropriate Herb for the Blood-Soaked Middle Ages

Essential Varieties

Rumex acetosa or Common Sorrel includes several varieties, all of which are dioecious – a single plant has either male or female reproductive organs (but not both). It is a hardy plant.

Garden Sorrel is native to the British Isles and grows wild in fields and meadows. It has oblong, somewhat arrow-shaped, leaves with a notch at the base, and which are of a medium bright green colour. The leaves vary in shape and size – the lower ones are bigger and broader and are stalked while the younger leaves are smaller and narrower and are sessile. The plant grows to 500 to 800 centimetres and has a spread of 100 to 300 centimetres. 

Sorrel de Belleville (or Belleville Sorrel) is also a variety of Rumex acetosa, and it is the French French Sorrel. Compared to Garden Sorrel leaves, this variety’s leaves are longer and more arrow-shaped. They are a bright emerald green. Maturity or position of the respective leaves being the same, this herb’s flavour is milder and less acidic than that of Garden Sorrel. 

Rumex scutatus or Round-Leaved Sorrel is also called French Sorrel because it grows wild in France and neighbouring regions. This is a monoecious plant. It has broad, somewhat halberd-shaped or heart-shaped leaves. The plant grows to only 30 to 45 centimetres high. It grows along the ground and has a clumping habit. The taste of the leaves is sharp and very acidic.

Rumex scutatus leaves
Rumex scutatus or Round-Leaved Sorrel – Sorrel of ‘French Citizenship’

Blonde de Lyon Sorrel or Sarcelle Blond Sorrel is closely related to Sorrel de Belleville and is an old French cultivar. It starts putting out leaves very early in spring. Its leaves are even longer and narrower than those of Sorrel de Belleville. Its leaves too have a mild, acidic flavour.

Fervent’s Large Sorrel is another French variety. Like Blonde de Lyon, its leaves emerge very early in spring; moreover, it produces abundantly. The leaves are slightly blistered. This variety too is a clever choice with respect to flavour. 

Rumex sanguineus or Red-Veined Sorrel or Blood Dock has flat lettuce-like leaves of a brilliant green hue with prominent blood-red veins. It grows to about 30 centimetres and is native to Europe and Asia. This Sorrel is a ‘triple play,’ to use Baseball terminology. It tastes a little like lettuce so the young spring leaves can be eaten raw in salads. Older, basal leaves are good substitutes for spinach and kale. Third, it bears tiny red-coloured flowers in summer and is an excellent choice for an ornamental plant in shrubberies and rockeries mainly because of its very unusual and decorative foliage.

Rumex sanguineus on a white background
Brilliant Green With Those Blood-Red Veins – Rumex sanguineus

Other Varieties

Rumex patientia or Patience Dock is a very hardy species. This is the Sorrel that was used as a herb and a leafy green in Ancient Greece and Rome. It is a tap-rooted perennial that grows to be a tall plant often exceeding 2 metres in height. Rather than a herb it is more of a leafy green. It puts out leaves with the first signs of spring. It is still eaten in two or three countries on the Continent.

Rumex arcticus or Arctic Dock or Sour Dock is a perfectly hardy species that is indigenous to Alaska and the Arctic regions and grows even in the Arctic circle. It has lanceolate leaves that are a part of the diet of the Eskimo People. In summer the plant bears lovely upright red panicles.

Rumex vesicarius or Indian Sorrel or Bladder Dock has an upright form with ovate leaves. It grows in the temperate and tropical zones of Asia. The leaves are broadly oval. They have a pleasantly sour taste and are distinctive for their succulence for which reasons they make for a very fine salad leaf. 

Indian sorrel on a white background
Rumex vesicarius or Indian Sorrel

Rumex hastatulus or Heartwing Sorrel has some of the prettiest and also tastiest leaves – deep, bright green, and tart and tangy. It grows wild in the Southern United States but is little known even in its native regions. It attains a height of about 60 centimetres. An excellent choice for the home garden.

Rumex montanus or Mountain Sorrel include three variants. These plants are distinguished by their much larger leaves that can be up to 30 centimetres and which are blistered to some or another degree. These Sorrels’ leaves are just about the most highly acidic leaves of all.

Rumex crispus or Curled Dock or Yellow Dock is one of the most medicinal of Rumex species; it is one of those that provides curative ‘dock leaves.’ This plant has several sub-species and grows wild in much of the Temperate Zone. Both roots and leaves have medicinal properties. Decoctions made from leaves are used for digestive disorders and the leaves are used as a laxative. Whole leaves are also topically applied for the treatment of burns, rashs, and wounds. The root in powdered form is an ingredient in medications for the treatment of anaemia. 

Rumex acetosella or Sheep Sorrel is not an edible herb being more like a coarse weed; however it is worth mentioning for three reasons. First, though, it is quite a small plant with an upright form that grows wild in Temperate and Sub-Tropical Zones, including the United Kingdom. It is a favourite fodder for sheep. Next, it is an invasive weed. And, finally, it has extraordinary medicinal and curative strengths, including anti-cancer properties, and is a key ingredient of the alternative cancer medication Essiac.

sheep sorrel growing as a weed in a field
Sheep Sorrel has Much Medicinal Value and Grows Wild as a Weed

Habitat and Growing Conditions

Rumex of some species or another occurs in nature from Sub-Tropical to Tundra Zones. Rumex articus grows in the Arctic and is relied upon as a food stuff by the Inuit and other Eskimo people. Rumex vesicarius is likewise used as a culinary ingredient except that it grows in the heat and dust of India.

Many other Rumex species grow wild in forests, fields, meadows, roadsides, and poor and gravelly land virtually through the length and breadth of all continents. Sorrels, therefore, span the gamut of USDA Hardiness Zones. Though most prefer full sun, a few varieties grow in partial shade or even full shade. 

Rumex acetosa is a perennial and is hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 7.

The majority of Rumex species are invasive to some or another degree and many, particularly Rumex acetosella or Sheep Sorrel, are considered weeds in North America. These plants spread rapidly and can be hard to control. To prevent them from spreading, cut off the flower stalks. A side benefit will be the renewed production of the useful part of the plant, the foliage.

an English meadow with various wildflowers
Sorrel Often Grows Wild in Meadows Like This One

How to Grow Sorrel

Prepare a bed with a good mix of soil that is organic but not rich. It should have good drainage and be in a sunny location, preferably full sun. Plant Rumex acetosa or Common Sorrel seeds in April, sowing them 15 to 20 centimetres apart and about a centimetre under the soil.

Keep the soil moderately moist. After the plants germinate, water them in moderation twice a week though in an area with ample rainfall you may not need to water them for days on end. As the plants grow, you may need to thin them if they were planted too closely.

sorrel in a garden patch
A Bed of Thriving Garden Sorrel

Weed the bed as you would for any other plant.

As a perennial, Sorrel will become dormant in the winter but will re-emerge in spring. As a cold-hardy plant Common Sorrel varieties do not need protection but it would be wise to lightly cover or mulch it with organic compost if you anticipate frost.

Besides growing from seed, Common Sorrel may be propagated by dividing the roots.

Other Sorrels may be grown in the same way with minor variations; after all, Sorrels are easy-grow and no-care plants.

As for plant care, if there is one thing that Sorrel doesn’t need and doesn’t even want, it’s TLC treatment. Indeed, it can be said that Sorrels flourish on neglect.

Harvesting Sorrel 

The first flower stalk that the plant puts out in early summer should be cut so that the plant can produce an adequate quantity of flavourful leaves. Subsequent flower stalks may be allowed to remain though they will negatively impact both the growth and quality of leaves. Cutting off the flower stalks will always positively effect the leaves in both quality and quantity.

Harvesting of the leaves can begin when the plants reach about 12 centimetres or more.

In mid or late summer you can cut back Common Sorrel to the ground and get a fresh crop of leaves.

If you harvest outer leaves the plant will continue to grow fast and put out new leaves. However, it is the fresh, young leaves that are the more zesty and flavourful. You can harvest both kinds of leaves selectively, and the plant should produce new leaves until mid-Autumn.

harvesting sorrel leaves from a field
Sorrel Leaves Being Harvested

Common Diseases & Problems

Sorrels, growing as they do wild in nature all around the world, are tough and robust plants and in general are worry-free.

The only problem you need to keep an eye open for are slugs and snails, which are not too difficult to repel or eliminate.

Infrequently Sorrels get attacked by aphids or leaf miners.

Sorrels are disease-resistant plants.

Where to Get Sorrel  

Rumex acetosa, Rumex scutatus, and Rumex sanguineus are available through many sellers, brick-and-mortar nurseries as well as online. Other species of sorrel may be harder to find at nurseries. However, many Sorrels can be propagated by root division. Also, if you allow the flowers to wither and go to seed, you will automatically get new Sorrel plants. In fact, most Sorrels are fast-spreading and even invasive plants.

Culinary Uses  

Various Sorrels have been used since Ancient Times in the Mediterranean Region as an edible green. In Mediaeval Times they were commonly used in Europe as a pot-herb to add zest to simple foods such as boiled beef or mutton.

Sorrel leaves can be cooked with other vegetables, leafy or otherwise, used raw in salads, and shredded or crushed and used as a herb, especially with soups and egg-based dishes. 

Older, basal leaves are better used for cooked foods while younger and smaller leaves are great in salads.

In France the main culinary applications for Sorrel are in soups and sauces including Cream of Sorrel Soup. On America’s Eastern Seaboard, Sorrel Sauce is a traditional accompaniment for salmon, shad, and other seafood. 

In general, among the three ‘main’ culinary Sorrel herbs, Garden Sorrel has a sour-lemon flavour. Its oxalic acidic content is in between those of the other two Sorrel herbs. It makes for a mavellous zesty, tangy addition to salads, soups, casseroles, and such. Round-Leaved Sorrel has a more intense sour-tart or piquant flavour by virtue of having the highest oxalic acid content. It is well-suited to be used as a pot-herb for beef, mutton, and stews. With the lowest oxalic acid content, Sorrel De Belleville has a milder, sourish flavour and it is an excellent Sorrel base for fine soups, and sauces for fricassées.

Polonische Sour Sorrel Soup in a bowl with mash and an egg
Polonische Sour Sorrel Soup

Sorrel is used in many cuisines around the world and recipes that use this versatile leaf cum herb are easy to find.

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