Sorrel, a zingy, lemony green that comes back year after year, makes an interesting addition to fresh salads and is the star of fresh, lemony sauces and creamy sorrel soup.
Illustration by Keith Ward
Cold-hardy and a perennial herb plant, sorrel is easy to grow in sun or partial shade. Young sorrel leaves are the plants’ edible parts, and new sorrel leaves emerge from the plants’ centers for several months, from late winter to late fall.
The zingy, lemony flavor of garden sorrel is at its best in early spring, the traditional season for making sorrel soup. The flavor of sorrel leaves is due in large part to oxalic acid, which is harmless consumed in small amounts but should be avoided by people with a history of kidney stones.
Adapted to Zones 4 to 9, sorrels deserve a place in every homestead garden.
Types of Sorrel
Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is also called English sorrel or common sorrel. A perennial valued for its early spring greens, garden sorrel is available as a seed-sterile variety called ‘Profusion.’ Cutting off flower spikes to prevent unwanted reseeding is the biggest challenge to growing garden sorrel.
French sorrel (R. scutatus) has distinctly arrow-shaped leaves, and strains have been selected for low oxalic acid content. Like garden sorrel, French sorrel can become invasive if reseeding is not controlled.
Blood sorrel (R. sanguineus), also called red sorrel, makes a beautiful ornamental to grow in partial shade, but the leaves are only edible when very young. Some tangy mesclun mixtures include red sorrel.
How to Plant Sorrel
Sorrel can be grown from seeds started indoors in early spring, or you can purchase a plant from a nursery. After established, one or two plants will grow into a patch that will produce enough sorrel for most households. Set out plants in spring, around your last frost date, in any fertile, well drained soil. Sorrel plants tolerate light frosts.
For recommended planting dates for your local climate — and to design your garden beds — try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Allow seedlings of garden sorrel or French sorrel a full season to establish themselves in the garden. Remove weeds that crowd your growing sorrel plants.
Except for the ‘Profusion’ variety, sorrel plants send up flowering spikes which eventually adorn themselves with thousands of dangling flat seeds. Clip off the seed heads while they are still green, because sorrel can become weedy in many climates. Sorrel is closely related to the weed called yellow dock (R. crispus) and shares its talent for reseeding.
Harvesting and Storage
Sorrel is usually eaten raw in salads or on sandwiches, or cooked into creamy sorrel soup. In any dish, a little sorrel goes a long way. Only one or two leaves, slipped into a sandwich or sliced into thin ribbons and tossed into a salad, are plenty. The citrusy, sour tang of sorrel leaves make them a great accent herb for Thai-inspired dishes. If you are hooked on sorrel soup, you can steam sorrel leaves and form them into cigar-shaped rolls before freezing them.
Sorrel can be propagated from seed started indoors under lights in late winter, or you can cut away rooted crowns from the outside of established plants and move them to a new location immediately.
Garden sorrel likes to grow into a small patch of several plants. To keep production of early spring leaves as high as possible, thin back to the healthiest plants in early fall. Every four to five years, lift and replant vigorous young crowns to a new spot in early spring.
For more information about growing sorrel, see Zesty Sorrel and Grow Sorrel, A Versatile Lemony Green. Plus, for growing advice for many more garden crops, check out our complete Crops at a Glance Guide.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.