Zesty Sorrel: The Garden Green with Zing

Sorrel is the zesty garden green with zing!

| February/March 2007

Sorrel is a delightful potherb and one of nature’s most special greens, with a tangy taste sensation that can take your taste buds through all of the following: limes, lemons, spinach, rhubarb, cabbage and amaranth. There are many kinds of sorrel, and all of them are nutritious and easy to grow. Rich in potassium and vitamins A, B1 and C, they have been part of healthful diets and botanic medicine for thousands of years.

Sorrel was one of those foods that helped ward off scurvy, the result of the vitamin C deficiency that was once the scourge of the American winter diet. Because of their cooling nature, sorrels also were given to people suffering from fevers, but they were such a pervasive ingredient in early spring cookery that their medicinal properties were secondary to culinary uses. Sorrel sauce with shad is a classic spring dish in the middle Atlantic states. It’s always been a great match with oily fish such as herring and salmon. Sorrel pudding pie was a heralded spring favorite among the Pennsylvania Dutch and in the farmhouses of early America. Chopped common sorrel makes a terrific addition to green salads, and the lemony leaves are excellent in the cracked wheat salad known as tabouli. What follows are discussions of the most important culinary varieties of sorrel.

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

This sorrel was gathered from the wild until the late 1600s, when French gardeners decided to bring it under cultivation to improve the flavor and texture of the leaves. The oldest cultivated sorrel still extant is ‘Belleville,’ a lemon-flavored, large-leafed variety domesticated in France during the 1730s. Its powerful lemony flavor can be tamed easily by blending it with other milder ingredients. You can plant it on marginal ground in the garden, even in semi-shade, ignore it, and still realize a delicious harvest every year. Not only does it withstand abuse, but pests ignore it almost entirely. This love of neglect is true of all sorrels, regardless of species. It may be difficult to find ‘Belleville’ seed in the United States, but a good substitute is ‘Blonde de Lyon,’ which is available from The Gourmet Gardener and Richter’s of Canada.

Another common sorrel is ‘Profusion,’ an unusual patented variety that mutated naturally in France to produce plants that never run to seed, always have fresh, ready-to-pick leaves, and have no known natural enemies aside from deer, rabbits, chickens and goats. The leaves are round, dark green and more succulent than most other common sorrels. It can be eaten raw in salads or cooked like other greens. This gourmet sorrel was introduced commercially in 1993 by Richter’s and is still available from them. ‘Profusion’ sorrel can be increased only by division or cuttings. It makes a great ornamental border plant because it grows in compact mounds of 8 to 10 inches.

French Sorrel, or Buckler Leaf Sorrel (Rumex scutatus)

This attractive sorrel native to Europe grows close to the ground, almost like a vine, hardly more than 6 inches tall. It is this species that is used to make classic French sorrel soup. It also was used extensively in medieval cookery both in sauces and as a garnish for elaborate court dishes. Its flavor is mild, more like green grapes than common sorrel. The leaves are shaped like small shields, and it’s a delightful plant for the herb garden.

This noninvasive perennial also is perfect for rock gardens, because it likes well-drained, sunny locations. When the weather is chilly, the leaves appear frosted and develop attractive patches of rose and violet. It can be grown from seed, division or cuttings. 

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