Monday, March 11, 2013

Permaculture Plants: Sorrel

A patch of wild Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa

Common Name: Sorrel
Scientific Name: Rumex species
Family: Polygonaceae (the Buckwheat or Smartweed family)

It is easy to see why Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is also called Red Sorrel

Common Species:
  • French or Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa
  • Sheep's, Red, or Field Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
  • Monk's Rhubarb (Rumex alpinus)
  • Herb Patience (Rumex patientia)
  • Buckler-Leaved or French Sorrel (Rumex scutatus)

Buckler-Leaved Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) has a more spade-shaped leaf.

Docks and Sorrels are closely related species belonging to the Rumex genus. Most species are considered "weeds", but the ones listed here have a fantastically refreshing and bright flavor - think lemony lettuce! The flowers, seeds, and even roots are edible as well. They attract beneficial insects, mine for minerals in the soil, and are drought-tolerant to name but a few of their traits. An easy to maintain addition in the Forest Garden.

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa

Sheep, Red, or Field Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

There are over 200 species in the Rumex genus. Where these plants were not native, they were introduced on purpose or on accident, and they can now be found the world over. Only a few species of Sorrel have had much interest by plant breeders, so the wild plants are what we have.

  • "Sorrel" is also used to describe parts or tea from the Hibiscus which is popular around the Equator, but has no relation to the Rumex species
  • Sorrel is used fresh and cooked around the world in traditional cuisine most commonly in Europe, but also Africa and Asia
  • Sheep Sorrel was used to revegetate overgrazed fields in Australia

Sorrel is best picked when leaves are young and tender.

Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - here's a recipe for soup:

Primary Uses:
  • Edible Leaves - unique fruity, sour (lemony) taste. Can be used raw (salads, on sandwiches, etc.) or cooked like spinach (soups, sauces, stews, pastries, spanakopita, quiches, etc.). The leaves may even be boiled to impart a lemony flavor to the water which is cooled and sweetened and used like lemonade.
  • Edible Flowers - typically used as a garnish for salads, but may be cooked as well.
  • Edible Roots - Some species have a large taproot which can be dried, ground, and used as a flour adjunct
  • Edible Seeds - May be eaten raw or cooked. May be dried, ground, and used as a flour adjunct

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect nectar plant
  • Dynamic Accumulator Plant - Excellent! (Potassium, Phosphorus, Calcium, Iron, Sodium)
  • Groundcover Plant
  • Pioneer Species - the deep roots can help break up hardened soils
  • Drought Tolerant Species
  • Juice from the leaves can be used to curdle milk
  • Juice from the leaves can be used to clean stains in clothing
  • Dye Plant - roots, leaves, and stems
  • Likely a decent feed plant for most domestic animals - chickens will eat the seeds (let them harvest themselves!) and greens sparingly

Harvesting: Spring harvest for leaves. Pick when young as older leaves are more fibrous.
Storage: Used fresh most commonly, but the leaves can be dried and used later.

Monk's Rhubarb is tolerant of cold climates, like alpine regions, hence its scientific name.
(Rumex alpinus

USDA Hardiness Zone:
  • French or Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - Zone 3-9
  • Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) - Zone 1-9 
  • Buckler-Leaved Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) - Zone 3-9

AHS Heat Zone
  • French or Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - Zone 6-1 
  • Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella): 10-1 
  • Buckler-Leaved Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) - Zone 6-1

Chill Requirement: No reliable information can be found

Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous (some varieties are evergreen)
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many species available. Some few have been improved.

Pollination: May be Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile or Dioecious (male and female plants) depending on the species. Pollinated by wind.
Flowering: May-September

Life Span: No reliable information can be found, but as these plants reseed so easily, it is almost a moot question.

Sorrel's have small flowers that attract small, beneficial insects.
Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

While many species have taproots, all species have deep-growing roots.
Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

  • French or Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) - 12-36 inches tall and 12 inches wide
  • Sheep's Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) - 6 inches tall and indefinitely wide
  • Buckler-Leaved Sorrel (Rumex scutatus) - 12 inches tall and 12-24 inches wide

Roots: Deep and fibrous, some species have a taproot; Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) has stolons (stems called "runners" that grow along the ground and produce roots, and then new plants)
Growth Rate: Medium to Fast

While not its main use, Sorrels can produce a decent amount of seed.
Herb Patience (Rumex patientia)

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Most species tolerate light shade, although some can tolerate moderate shade
Moisture: Dry to medium-moisture soils
pH: can tolerate a very wide range of soils (3.5-8.5)

Special Considerations for Growing: None

Typically, and easily, by seed - direct sow in Spring. Can transplant "wild" specimens. Can divide plants in Spring.

None. Flowering will stop new leaf growth, so you can encourage young leaf growth by cutting off the flowering stem.

  • Poisonous - Leaves and contain oxalic acid. Large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic. When cooked, much of the oxalic acid is reduced.
  • Running types can be expansive - they can grow all over the place.
  • Many varieties of Sorrel reseed very easily, so some consider them a bit invasive... I see this as a great trait!


  1. french sorrel,bloody sorrel and a few of the others are great in salad sparingly, and stewed or steamed, and also generaly well behaved in the garden(spreading within the bounds of controlable).

    this said unless you are planning on weeding it from everywhere(garden beds,lawn,cracks in the sidewalk,gravel driveway,neigbors yards,nearbyfields) every couple weeks i would advise against planting Sheep sorrel as it spreads practicaly uncontrolably, every tiny peice of root left becomes a colony.

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