17th April 2013

This milder weather and little bit of sunshine over the last few days has really kick-started everything into action. Literally in the last few days the Blackthorn blossom has opened, the leaves are starting to show on the Hawthorn, Lesser Celandine and Dandelions are in full flower and there is lots of new growth on the Broad-leaved Dock which had started to appear and then was set back by the cold spell.

Whilst out today stumbled across some Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa growing on a woodland track, not normally where you encounter this predominantly grassland plant.  Frequently found in pasture land and roadside verges this plant has been used for centuries as a food.

Common Sorrel Rumex acetosa
This perennial can grow up to a meter tall later in the year when it puts up its flower spike, and like many members of the Dock family can take on a distinctive red coloration later in the season.  Its leaves have the distinctive,  pointed, backwards pointing, arrow like lobes at the base which makes it relatively easy to identify but young Lords and Ladies Arum maculatum,which is toxic, can resemble Sorrel when it’s young. Sorrel appears slightly duller in appearance and with thicker more succulent leaves and the backward pointing lobes on Sorrel are more pointed than on Lords and Ladies.

Bizarrely, the compounds that makes Lords and Ladies toxic are the same chemicals that give Common Sorrel its sharp/sour flavour…..oxalic acid and calcium oxalate.  In high concentrations such as occurs in Lords and Ladies, Black Bryony, Rhubarb leaves etc. it forms needle like crystals which when ingested penetrate the soft membranes of the mouth and oesophagus causing  burning, and if actually swallowed could lead to muscular twitching or fits, renal failure and cardiac arrest.

But don’t worry, in smaller concentrations it just gives food a sharp flavour. However too much in the diet can cause kidney stones in susceptible people and it can inhibit the absorption of calcium in the gut, so best not to have too much, too often. However, to put it in perspective many foods contain it such as rhubarb and spinach, and in France where it is called Oseille, is grown commercially and sold in markets.

There (and in the past in the UK) its sharp flavour has lent to it being a traditional accompaniment to oily fish such as salmon and mackerel often in the form of Sorrel sauce. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads, added to a salsa verde or juiced to make a form of verjuice which we described previously. Cooked, as well as sauce they can be served as a vegetable in their own right, put into a savoury egg tart, as a filling for omlettes and also made into a soup.

It can also be used in desserts in place of lemon, and sweet sorrel tart is definately worth trying.

Kev Palmer

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