Forgotten herb: sorrel

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Sorrel comes in a bunch of different varieties. I grow French sorrel in my garden. Wild sorrel grows in the woods and along parking lots throughout the US and Europe. My French and English friends might be surprised that I’m writing about sorrel in a  forgotten herb series. They haven’t forgotten it. Americans have.

close enough pronunciation “sore-uhl”

french sorrel

We imported it in earnest in the 1700s and forgot about it entirely sometime in the 1900s. Hey, it’s ok. A 200-year run is longer than I will have.

One of my favorite gardening moments happened last year when a friend from my kid’s preschool pulled into my yard in her Tesla. She saw me in the garden and decided to stop by. She spent a few minutes asking me to identify plants for her. You know I loved it! Then without me saying a word, she gasped, “Oh sorrel! I haven’t seen it since I was a kid in Belgium.” I told her she could have some anytime.

Americans are surrounded by wild-growing sorrel, but most of us never even notice it. Although, Google Trends tells me there is a slow, steady increase happening in the number of searches for “sorrel”. I mean slow increase though. We’re in year eight, still going.

Again, Vermont leads the States in searches for a forgotten herb. Number two by the skin of their teeth is Utah. Why Utah? Someone from Utah please tell me why your people are searching for sorrel. By the way, if you do just a few more googles in Utah, you’ll bump Vermont down to #2. Just letting you know.

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Sorrel in the wild

You probably crushed some sorrel by accident the last time you went on a hike. It grows wild almost everywhere in the US. I never suggest you eat anything growing wild. It’s  dangerous, especially if you haven’t taken classes or become an expert at identifying wild plants. However, if you were an expert plant identifier and lost in the forest, you could survive on sorrel for awhile; then, you’d get kidney stones from all the oxalic acid.

But, on the bright side, you’d bunk scurvy because one cup of sorrel has more Vitamin C than an orange. It might be even healthier than a cup of kale. I don’t know. We can debate it.

Eating sorrel

Sorrel is delicious as a fresh, green bed for steamed white fish. In fact, my number one recommendation for cooking with sorrel is to use it fresh, wash it and lay it down under a steaming, hot piece of seasoned white fish. Do not steam the sorrel. It doesn’t really hold up well when cooked. It’s better with a raw crispness to it.

My second favorite way to eat sorrel is just straight from the garden. The tart leaves bring a burst of flavor to salads. It would be delicious used as an accent herb in a coleslaw.

Online (or in France) you’ll see sorrel cooked into a soup or a sauce. It’s just good, not great made into a soup. Je suis desolee. It gets a little slimy when heated. I have not tried it chopped into an herbed butter, but I think I’d like that better.

It tastes sour, which shouldn’t become a craving, but I crave the flavor of sorrel. I get my quick fixes with common wood sorrel that you may recognize from a crack in the sidewalk nearest you. Wood sorrel grows everywhere, but please don’t ever eat anything you are unsure of or haven’t researched extensively. Wood sorrel looks like other plants that will at least give you a stomach ache.

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Wood sorrel growing in my garden

Sometimes on the internet, I see the taste of sorrel described as citrus. Oooh, that’s not exactly accurate. What they probably mean is that it is a bit tart. There is a sour, lemon-like quality. But if you are expecting an orange or grapefruit flavor when you bite into sorrel, you’ll be disappointed. It’s more like a slightly unripe kumquat.

Why I grow sorrel

I started growing French sorrel in my garden because I read about it in old gardening books. Apparently, our great-great grandparents would be surprised we go our whole lives without eating sorrel in the States. Of course, our great-great grandparents likely had accents from places that did and do still eat sorrel regularly.

My favorite thing about this rich, green plant is that it is the first arrival in my garden in the Spring. Its green shoots give me Spring fever every year, and I just can’t wait to get into the garden and start planting some more.

I’m in Zone 6a. The internet tells me sorrel is only a perennial up to Zone 5. Since my sorrel grows right through the snow in March, I wonder if it doesn’t push that zone a little more. Would someone in a lower zone please weigh in on that?

Blood-veined sorrel is really beautiful.

I grow this French sorrel in my backyard garden. It’s low maintenance for sure!

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5 thoughts on “Forgotten herb: sorrel

  1. Thanks for the info. Regarding the ground sorrel, I thought those were clover leaves, like four leaf clovers. Never too old to learn. Thanks again. Am truly enjoying your site. GM

  2. That’s why I don’t recommend anyone eats anything they aren’t positive about. But yes, wood sorrel looks a lot like clovers or shamrocks, but the wood sorrel has little yellow flowers.

    1. Excellent point, Annie. It is so pretty, but containing it is a great idea. I haven’t found the French sorrel to spread much, but I do keep it pretty trimmed down all season.

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