This week the star of my Oxford Canal edgeland flora post is Common Sorrel or Garden Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), often simply called sorrel.
Common Sorrel belongs to a group of plants commonly known as docks and is a herbaceous perennial native to the British Isles. It was once cultivated as a potherb and marketed as the ‘essential salt of lemons’ but is now merely a wild food plant; it is also used in herbal medicine for its diuretic properties.
Other names for sorrel include spinach dock and narrow-leaved dock.
Sorrel grows abundantly, particularly in iron rich pastureland, it’s a slender plant about 60 cm high, with roots that run deep into the ground. It has edible, oblong leaves, the lower leaves being 7 to 15 cm in length, slightly arrow-shaped at the base, the upper ones lie against the stem and frequently become crimson-coloured as the summer season progresses.
Sorrel has whorled spikes of reddish-green flowers, which bloom in summer, becoming purplish.
The name sorrel is rather generalist and confusingly it’s used to describe several related plants, including wild sorrel and French sorrel. Its name seemingly derives from the French for ‘sour’, in reference to the plant’s characteristic acidity. All sorrel is incredibly sour with a lemony, kiwifruit or sour wild strawberry flavour.
Common Sorrel is also called ‘Cuckoo’s-meate’ from an old belief that the bird cleared its voice using the sourness of sorrel leaves. In Scotland it was called ‘gowkemeat.’
In the time of Henry VIII, Sorrel was held in great repute, for table use. It was often pulped to a mash and mixed with vinegar and sugar, to make a green sauce used with cold meat, hence one of its popular names: Greensauce; or boiled, without water, as an accompaniment to roast goose or pork, instead of apple sauce.
But, after the introduction of French Sorrel, it gradually lost its position as a salad and potherb, and ceased to be cultivated despite it being highly favoured by herbalists such as gardener and diarist John Evelyn (31 October 1620 – 27 February 1706)
who wrote in 1720: ‘Sorrel sharpens the appetite, assuages heat, cools the liver and strengthens the heart; is an antiscorbutic, resisting putrefaction and in the making of sallets imparts a grateful quickness to the rest as supplying the want of oranges and lemons. Together with salt, it gives both the name and the relish to sallets from the sapidity, which renders not plants and herbs only, but men themselves pleasant and agreeable.’