Sorrel is one of the first plants that I remember being able to identify as a child. My mother’s plant grew just below one of the ancient espalier apples among granny’s bonnets, day lilies and wayward campanulas. Nostalgia has bathed my memories of this plant in dappled sunlight, cool damp grass underfoot and a puckered tongue after a mouthful of green apples and lemon juice. I’d eat until my teeth squeaked with all the acid.
I still like sorrel. I eat it in soups or with oily fish. I have a spring ritual of Cornish pilchards on a bed of sorrel leaves and brown toast for lunch, on as many days as I can. I like to find the odd leaf in a salad and I very much like a yoghurt dressing with plenty of chopped sorrel, a little raw garlic and salt. Sometimes, if I’m channelling my inner Yotam, I’ll add some tahini, too. It’s good on roasted vegetables or as a dip.
Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa subsp acetosa) grows wild in damp pastures and fertile places. But wild sorrel loves to flower, so you can forage for only a short spring period before the leaves become tough and small. You can also find sheep sorrel (R. acetosella) in abundance in grassy places; its leaves are always tiny, but fun to nibble while you’re loafing about on the grass.
In the garden, however, you want a cultivated sorrel, such as R. acetosa ‘Broad Leaves’, as the leaves are larger and more prolific. It will still flower in summer, but if you cut off flower spikes before they open, you can keep it productive. After several years, it will start to flower earlier and earlier, and the leaves will toughen whatever you do. It self-seeds, so one trick is to let it naturally renew itself and ditch older, tougher plants.
Recently I’ve treated it like an annual, sowing cut-and-come-again patches in containers from now till midsummer and picking as baby leaves. Most companies are generous with their seed, and one packet, stored well, can last several years for such methods.
The holy grail, though, is to find true French sorrel (R. acetosa subsp ambiguus ‘Abundance’ or ‘Profusion’). These varieties are non-flowering selections and remain productive for years. As they don’t flower, you can harvest them all summer long, making it an incredibly useful plant for sun or dappled shade.
However, if you find these leaves a little too sour, try buckler leaf sorrel (R. scutatus). I’ve found this a bit less tart than ordinary sorrel, and the leaves are a pretty shield shape. They’re smaller, too, and it is a more compact plant, making it ideal for a pot in semi-shade. Although it can tolerate drought, a dry plant will become very tough, so make sure that the pot has a deep enough root run: five litres should suffice.
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