(Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 19, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
To me, garden sorrel looks so much like bitter dock, it's hard to tell the difference. They both can be found all across the United States, they both are tall with stems that bear flowers growing upward on the stem. And neither of them was of much importance to me when I went in search of them years ago with my Aunt Bett
The thing about Aunt Bett was that if she couldn't find the plant she was searching for, she knew a few others that would serve the same purpose when used in the herbal/home remedies she spent all her time making. An example of that was bitter dock and sorrel. Both were considered to be acceptable laxatives, both were edible in some ways, and they both looked a lot alike, except for the color of their flowers. Sorrel blooms were dark reddish brown, and if it weren't in bloom I didn't know the difference between the two. At the time, I remember thinking that I would always remember everything she taught me. But then I think of all that has happened in our society since the 1950's.
We have grown so much in technology and in scientific knowledge; it has been a long time since we made our own soaps, lotions, salves, or even grew our own food. The Aunt Betts of the world went out of style, and you know that most of us just go with the flow of society, and follow each other in and out of supermarkets, where we can buy very nearly everything that we need in order to survive. Same goes for pharmacies. Most of us would never think of learning to make salves to cure bug bites, not when we can zip into the pharmacy with a prescription from the doctor, and have salve in our hands within a few minutes. As a matter of fact, I would not always trust myself to use plants as curatives for anything, even though I spent years learning processes from Aunt Bett. Too many plants are toxic at some stages, and I have forgotten the precautions that I thought I would never forget.
At any rate, sorrel is one of my forgotten plants. Rumex acetosa came to the new world as a salad green with the pioneers. The Native Americans also used it, but more as a medicinal plant than as a food. It grows wild now along roads, in meadows and old fields. It is a perennial that grows to a height of about 2 feet, has an erect stem that branches at the top into several stalks bearing clusters of small reddish green to brown flowers from June through September. Smooth emerald green leaves shaped much like an arrowhead grow from their own stalk, and then grow alternately on the stem as the plant matures. The leaves on the stem look as if they are embracing it, so if you look closely you can tell it is sorrel by the unique leaf growth pattern.
This plant was a regular feature of European vegetable gardens from the Middle Ages until the 1700's. Mashed sorrel leaves mixed with vinegar and sugar were popular as a green sauce with cold meat, and some people still call the plant greensauce, because that was the name it was given at that time. The herb's sharp taste is due to its oxalic acid and vitamin C content, and years ago it was commonly used to prevent scurvy. However, even small amounts of oxalic acid are toxic to some extent, sorrel should never be served indiscriminately. In large amounts oxalic acid is extremely poisonous. The oxalic acid content in sorrel can be reduced by parboiling before cooking.
Along about the same time, around the early eighteenth century, a tea made from sorrel root was long recommended by herbalists as a diuretic, but its use is not a valid idea because of the plant's potential toxicity. A leaf tea has also figured in herbal medicine as an appetite stimulant, a scurvy preventive, and an antiseptic, as well as a coolant for fever.
For as long as I remember, Aunt Bett only used sorrel with lard as a salve, along with the ever present mint leaf so that the scent would not overwhelm. Most of those concoctions smelled much like the asphidity bag that I was often forced to wear, so that no evil things would happen to me while I climbed around the mountains searching for one thing or another. I wonder why I never thought to open that asphidity bag and stuff it full of mint leaves? Or maybe rose petals. Sometimes on a hot summer day with sweat dripping and bugs flying, that tiny little bag smelled so bad, I am sure I could be smelled from a mile away. Thank goodness that ended before I was very old. I had a habit of losing those little bags, and when I lost one, it was never to be found again. I guess I finally lost so many of them, Aunt Bett got the message and never insisted that I wear one any more. I usually let my likes and dislikes be known.
I mention sorrel to you because it is an old plant that was once held in high esteem. It was necessary for survival in those old days, when doctor's were scarce and their knowledge was limited. Aunt Bett was smart enough that she only used most plants for surface problems, particularly if she questioned their toxicity. She was a wise woman, as we all should be if we decide to use a lot of herbal remedies. I was an attentive student when she was teaching me, but I chose only to learn things that I knew I would enjoy. I think the main reason that I can't tell you very much about sorrel is because there wasn't a thing about it that made a dye.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Lunavox for the thumbnail, LilyLover_UT for the second photo, mgarr for the third, and Shirley1md for the last photo. My articles would be quite bland without your excellent photos.
Source for verification: Magic and Medicine of Plants, 1986, The Readers Digest Association, Inc.