Dear Readers, what an unassuming little plant this is! if you weren’t paying attention you could easily miss it. This is sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Sorrel looks like a grass, but isn’t one. It’s a member of the Polygonaceae or knotgrass family, along with the various persicarias and bistorts and our old friend, Japanese knotweed. The zesty leaves have been eaten throughout the plant’s range, which includes Scandinavia, the rest of Europe and parts of Eurasia. Sorrel is used in spanakopita, the Greek feta, leek and greens pie, in Albanian byrek pies and in Armenian aveluk soup, with walnuts and lentils. In Eastern Europe, it’s turned into soup with hard-boiled eggs. In short, sorrel’s lemon-flavoured leaves are much enjoyed in parts of the world where citrus isn’t grown, or at times of the year when lemons aren’t available.
The flavour of the leaves has given rise to a whole range of vernacular names. My Vickery’s Folk Flora (by Roy Vickery) tells me that in northern England sorrel is known as bitterdabs, in Roxburghshire as Lammie sourocks, in Northern Ireland as red sour-leek and in Ross-shire as sourey souracks, which is probably my favourite. It reminds me rather of Boaty McBoatface, the name selected by the public in the UK when asked to suggest a name for a research ship (subsequently named the David Attenborough, which is more appropriate but rather less fun).
Medicinally, Scottish children used to eat the first leaves of sorrel as a cure for their spots, and John Clare describes how workers in the field would nibble on the plant to slake their thirst. It used to be believed that the plant could ward off scurvy:although the flavour comes from oxalic acid rather than ascorbic acid, it contains some Vitamin C, as do all green plants. While the oxalic acid is associated with kidney stones, you’d have to eat prodigious quantities of the plant to do yourself a damage. Plus oxalic acid is also present in foods like rhubarb, and what is the point of life without rhubarb?
Sorrel was also the source of ‘salts of lemons‘, a concentrated compound of the oxalic acid, which could be used to bleach straw, remove rust stains from linen, and remove ink stains. With the last, however, the chemical reaction only worked if the ink was made from oak galls and salts of iron.
It is eaten by various caterpillars, including those of the fiery clearwing (Pyropteron chrysidiformis), the forester moth (Adscita statices) the blood-vein (Timandra comae) and the scarce vapourer (Orgyia recens), all scarce species that it’s well worth encouraging.
Sorrel can also be used as a dye, with either the whole plant or the root being used with various mordants to get a whole range of colours. The dyes in the photo come from sorrel’s close relative sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) but the results should be broadly the same. Who knew you could get so many colours from such a modest little plant? The photo comes from the Forest and the Spirit blog, which is well worth a look.
And finally, a poem. I love Edna St Vincent Millay, with her streak of cussedness and curmudgeonly attitude. How could I not also love this poem? Why, even the name is appropriate. I’m not exactly sure what the last verse means, so feel free to share!
White with daisies and red with sorrel
And empty, empty under the sky!—
Life is a quest and love a quarrel—
Here is a place for me to lie.
Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
Cursed by farmers thriftily.
But here, unhated for an hour,
The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
Like flowers that bear an honest name.
And here a while, where no wind brings
The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things,
The blood too bright, the brow accurst.
Photo One By Popo le Chien – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69436320
Photo Two by Ferran Pestaña, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three AfroBrazilian, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by hamon jp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by Ilia Ustyantsev, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons