Are you interested in cultivating some different edible greens? Or maybe you’re interested in re-creating a Medieval garden and are looking for ancient potherbs? Then consider growing sorrel this year!
It’s a delicious, delicate plant with a lemony flavor and a ton of vitamin C. Read on to learn how to grow it at home!
What is Sorrel?
There are two main types of sorrel grown for culinary purposes. These are garden sorrel (Rumex acestosa) and French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). Don’t feel limited though. All Rumex species docks and sorrels are edible, though the two above are some of the tastiest.
Sorrel is a bright green (and sometimes red) perennial vegetable that’s been cultivated as an edible green for thousands of years. You can also eat the seeds, which have a buckwheat-like flavor (unsurprising since they’re part of the same family).
Although it rose to popularity in England during the Medieval era, it has long been a mainstay from northern Europe down to North Africa, and across to India. Its sour, lemony flavor makes it a wonderful addition to soups, curries, and savory pies.
Since it’s a perennial, it only needs to be sown once. After it established itself, it’ll come back pretty much indefinitely. It also self-seeds and spreads rather enthusiastically on its own! In fact, in some areas, it grows as a weed and you can forage it for food.
My sorrel patch has been growing steadily for over a decade now. What started off as a few spindly plants is now a 5×12-foot bed full of verdant, lemony greens.
As far as perennial greens go, you can’t really mess up growing sorrel. It’s hardy through zones 4–8 and thrives in many different soil types. Remember, it has naturalized all over the place, even if dry, compacted soils next to roads.
Note that when we refer to growing sorrel for food here, we aren’t referring to wood sorrel (Oxalis spp.). Although most Oxalis species are edible, they’re better foraged than cultivated in a vegetable or herb garden.
Sun and Soil Requirements for Growing Sorrel
For best results, cultivate sorrel in rich, well-draining, moderately acidic soil. Sorrel will grow in moderately depleted soils too, but the plants will be smaller and less flavorful.
This plant needs a lot of direct sunlight too. If there’s a sunny patch in your yard, make sure to plant your sorrel right smack in the middle of it. Alternatively, you can also cultivate it in a pot on a sunny patio or balcony.
If you choose to grow your sorrel in containers, make sure it drains well. Use a compost-rich potting soil with plenty of perlite, vermiculite, rice hulls, orchid bark, or sphagnum moss in it.
Sorrel doesn’t transplant well, so just direct-sow it into your garden a week or two before your last frost date. Pop your seeds in between 1/4-1/2 inches deep and 5 inches apart, and cover lightly with compost. Then water gently and let the sunshine wake those babies up.
Watering and Feeding
Sorrel likes to stay consistently moist, so try to keep it watered evenly. Always water at the soil level so the tender leaves don’t burn from overhead misting. Try not to let the soil dry out too much, and water extra during drought periods.
If your soil isn’t naturally rich, you can scatter some well-aged compost around the plants halfway through the growing season. Alternatively, you can replenish the surrounding soil with a high-nitrogen feed.
Blood meal and bat guano, as well as rabbit or deer droppings, are all excellent, high-nitrogen fertilizers for your garden. Just apply them as per the instructions on the package and your plants should do wonderfully.
As far as companion plants go, sorrel does well with strawberries as neighbors. Both thrive in acidic soil, and the strawberry plants won’t shade out the low-growing greens.
If you’re companion planting with other acidic-loving fruits (like tomatoes), then sow your sorrel so it’s at the front of the bed, facing south. This way, the tall tomatoes won’t block the sun from the greens during the day.
Potential Pests and Diseases
I’ve been growing sorrel for about 30 years now and have never had a single pest problem. Soft-bodied jerks like slugs and caterpillars find the leaves too sour and acidic to eat. This same lemony acidity helps to fend off a wide variety of other predators.
You won’t see deer, groundhogs, or rabbits nibbling these greens!
Sorrel doesn’t have many predators at all, but some people have experienced some issues with aphids. If you get any of them, you can usually blast them off with a strong spray of water. Alternatively, neem oil or diatomaceous earth should make short work of them.
And hey, one can never go wrong by introducing more ladybugs into the garden either.
Harvest and Use
You can harvest sorrel right through into early winter, and it’s often the first green to appear in springtime. This year I dug out my potager garden from under 4 feet of snow to find that my sorrel, parsley, and thyme were already up!
Harvest the mature outer leaves first by snipping them off by the base. Make sure to use clean garden snips for this so you don’t risk any infection. Keep harvesting the leaves from the outside inward over the next several weeks. You’ll find that new growth springs up from the inside and then matures outward.
As mentioned, this vegetable is absolutely delicious in soups, stews, and savory baked goods. Try it in a traditional German sorrel and potato soup, or mixed with spinach and nettles as a filling for spanakopita.
If you’d like to harvest the seeds, allow the plant to form seedheads during the summer. Once the seeds are dark and firm, remove the seedhead from the plant and rub the seeds between your hands over a bowl to catch them. Blow in the bowl to remove the chaff.
Preserving it for Later
Sorrel leaves don’t dry well, nor do they do well when frozen raw. As a result, there are two ideal ways to preserve your sorrel harvest to use all year. One is to freeze cooked portions of it, and the other is to dehydrate it and grind it into powder.
For the former, blanch the sorrel as you would spinach, then shock it in ice water to preserve its green color. Next, chop it finely, squeeze out excess moisture, and freeze it in small pucks.
You can do this by lining a baking sheet with waxed paper, then pop tablespoons of sorrel onto it. Freeze for about four hours or until solid. Store these in plastic freezer bags until you’re ready to add them to soups or whatnot.
To dry them, spread them out on your dehydrator’s racks, leaving room for air to circulate. Dehydrate at 130°F for six hours, or until they crumble when rubbed between your fingers.
Crush them up by hand, in a mortar and pestle, or in a coffee grinder that’s dedicated to herbs and spices. Then store in an airtight jar until you’re ready to use it as a seasoning.
You can also mix sorrel powder together with an equal amount of sea salt for a lemon-flavored condiment.
To store the seeds, leave them out for a week or two in an area with good air circulation. Put them in a sealed container and store them somewhere dark and cool.
Additional Notes on Growing Sorrel
It’s important to note here that all sorrel species are high in oxalic acid. Only consume this in small quantities! It can cause kidney damage if taken in larger amounts, long-term.
In fact, if you have a history of kidney issues, only eat sorrel once or twice a month. When you do eat it, make sure to cook it. Add it to soup, braise it, bake it into savory pies and tarts, etc.
High amounts of oxalic acid (such as from eating handfuls of raw sorrel regularly) can cause kidney stones, especially in people who have inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s. Additionally, this acid can cause or exacerbate gout, rosacea, and other inflammatory conditions.
If you have any of these issues, keep your sorrel consumption to a minimum, as advised by the Cleveland Clinic. You may also want to reduce your intake of other veggies that are high in oxalates such as spinach, soy, navy beans, beets, and potato skins.