Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Sorrel – is it a vegetable or an herb? No one can seem to agree. What they can agree on is that it is a brightly flavored addition to your salad.
What is Sorrel?
Sorrel (Rumex spp) is a perennial plant that is native to Eurasia. Thanks to European colonization, it has spread to Australia and North America. It is a member of the buckwheat family.
The two most common species of sorrel grown in gardens are Common or Garden Sorrel (R. acetosa) and French Sorrel (R. scutatus).
Common sorrel is most often seen in gardens. Its leaves are arrow shaped and grow in a rosette that can be up to two feet wide. The leaves reach a height of 12 to 18 inches. It is hardy in zones 3 - 9
French sorrel is less popular in gardens but shouldn’t be. The leaves are smaller, looking more like arrow points, also growing in a rosette that grows 12 to 18 inches wide. The leaves only grow to 6 to 10 inches tall. It is hardy in zones 6 – 10.
Both sorrels will develop a flower stalk as the weather warms. It can grow several feet taller than the rosette of leaves. The red flowers are insignificant meaning that they are tiny. Sorrels are dioecious, meaning that the plants are either male or female. You need a male plant to fertilize the female plant to produce viable seed. After the flowers have died, seeds will appear. If you have both male and female plants, sorrel will self-sow in your garden.
Unless you want the plants to self-sow or you want to harvest the seeds, you should cut down the flower stalk and not allow it to go to seed. If allowed to develop seed, the plants will stop producing leaves.
Like all perennials, you should divide your plants every 3 to 4 years to keep them healthy and growing.
Both sorrels have a lemony taste because they contain oxalic acid. Oxalic acid can be toxic in large quantities, but is safe to eat occasionally in small quantities when sorrel is used in a salad. Oxalic acid can aggravate arthritis and kidney stones. People who have these conditions should avoid any kind of sorrel.
How to Grow Sorrel
Sorrel is a cool season plant. It prefers full sun but will grow in partial shade. Partial shade will keep it producing longer into the heat of summer. It likes to grow in slightly acidic soil, pH 5.5 to 6.8. The soil must be rich and well-drained. To keep it rich, amend your soil every year with compost. You can also side dress your plants with compost mid-way through the growing season.
Make sure your plants get at least one inch of water per week. A thick layer of mulch will help retain moisture in the soil.
Sorrel is not bothered by disease. The only pest you will see on your plants are aphids. Use your hose to knock them off the plants.
How to Divide Sorrel
Sorrel can be divided in either the fall or the spring. I prefer dividing my perennials in the fall. This gives them a chance to get settled in and grow out their roots before they go dormant in the winter. In the spring, they will be ready to start growing. Perennials that are divided in the spring need the same amount of time to settle in and grow out their roots so this will delay their growth for that year.
To divide your sorrel, carefully dig up the entire clump. Discard any dead or diseased parts of the clump. Pull the clump apart into as many pieces as you want making sure that each piece has roots and leaves. Replant the pieces 18 inches apart.
How to Grow Sorrel From Seed
Most gardeners grow their sorrel from purchased plants, but you can easily grow it from seed. It can be direct sowed in your garden after your last frost. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep. Germination should occur in 10 days. When your seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin them to 18 inches apart.
You can also start your seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep in a container filled with pre-moistened soil. Germination should occur in 10 days. You can transplant your seedlings into your garden after your last frost.
How to Harvest Sorrel
Sorrel plants are ready for harvest in 35 to 45 days. The leaves are full sized in 2 months when they are 4 inches long, but most people prefer the younger leaves. The leaves won’t have as much flavor early in the season. The flavor develops as the season progresses and the plants develop more oxalic acid which gives them their characteristic lemony taste. You can harvest up to half of the leaves each week without harming the plants.
How to Store Harvested Sorrel Leaves
Sorrel leaves do not store well. It is best to use them the same day that you harvest them. They can be stored in your refrigerator for up to a week. You can also freeze them or dry them, but the taste will not be as good as the fresh leaves.
© 2020 Caren White