How to Grow Sorrel

Sorrel plants being planted in garden with hand shovel on soil

The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

Sorrel is a leafy green vegetable grown for its pleasantly tart, lemony flavor. The plants have smooth to crinkled, arrow-shaped leaves that grow from a center rosette. The plant will send up a tall flower stalk as the temperature warms, but it's best to remove this to promote leaf growth for a better harvest. The red flowers are rather insignificant whorled spikes, like rhubarb.

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It's typically planted in spring and has a moderate growth rate. The young leaves are ready to harvest in a little over a month. Sorrel only grows 12 to 18 inches tall, although the flower stalks (if left on the plant) will grow taller. It does spread out though, easily taking up 2 feet in width. Sorrel is toxic to animals.

Common Name Sorrel, garden sorrel, French sorrel, sorrel dock, sour dock, sour leek, spinach dock
Botanical Name Rumex acestosa (Garden sorrel), Rumex scutatus (French sorrel)
Family  Polygonaceae
Plant Type  Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size  12-18 in. tall, 18-24 in. wide
Sun Exposure  Full sun
Soil Type  Rich, well-drained
Soil pH  Acidic (5.5 to 6.8)
Bloom Time  Summer
Flower Color  Green, turning to red
Hardiness Zones  5-7 (USDA) 
Native Area  Europe, Asia
Toxicity  Toxic to dogs and cats

How to Plant Sorrel

When to Plant

Sorrel plants prefer the cool seasons of spring and fall. The plant will quickly bolt to seed as the weather heats up. 

Selecting a Planting Site

Choose a sunny spot with good drainage and tilled soil. Only till the top 12 inches of soil with organic matter to loosen up the site for planting. The tilled bed will also cut down on weeds and help long tap roots adjust comfortably.

Spacing, Depth, and Support

Sow sorrel seeds 1/2 inch deep, spaced about 3 inches apart. When the plants are 1 to 2 inches tall, thin to a spacing of 12 to 15 inches. Typically, two or three plants meet the needs of the average family. Sorrel does not need any supports to grow.

Sorrel Care

Sorrel plants planted in blue metal container

The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

Sorrel plants being watered with watering can and moved to side by hand

The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

Sorrel plants in small black pots on wooden surface

The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

Sorrel seeds poured out of seed packet onto hand

The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

Light

Sorrel will grow best in full sun, although some partial shade will keep them growing into summer.

Soil

Sorrel grows best in a slightly acidic soil pH; somewhere in the range of 5.5 to 6.8. Because sorrel is grown for its leaves, a soil rich in organic matter will produce abundant leafy, green growth.

Water

Give your sorrel plants regular water; at least 1 inch per week. Mulching will help conserve moisture and prevent soil from splashing up onto the leaves.

Temperature and Humidity

Sorrel plants are reliably perennial in USDA hardiness zones 5 and higher, but they are commonly grown as annuals in zones 3 through 7, starting with new plants each spring. Older plants can become tough and less flavorful. Established plants can handle a light frost.

Fertilizer

Sorrel is happiest when started in a rich soil, but you should amend the soil each year with organic matter and possibly side-dress with compost or granular fertilizer applied mid-season.

Types of Sorrel

There aren't many seeds or sorrel plants with named varieties. The two most commonly grown species are garden sorrel (Rumex acestosa) and French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). Seeds and transplants are usually identified as sorrel, garden sorrel, or French sorrel. French sorrel has smaller leaves and a more subtle flavor than garden sorrel.

Here are four edible relatives in the Rumex genus:

  • Common or sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is often considered a weed; Its small leaves taste best when they are young and tender.
  • Red-veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) has leaves with red veins; It's more ornamental than flavorful with little of the tartness you'd expect from a sorrel and it's a good salad green.
  • Spinach dock (Rumex patientia), also called patience dock, garden patience, or herb patience, is much taller (4 to 5 feet tall) than garden sorrel, but with a similar flavor.
  • Spinach rhubarb (Rumex abyssinicus) is a giant 8-foot plant with leaves that can substitute for spinach and ribs like rhubarb.

Sorrel vs. Profusion Sorrel

Over a decade ago, Richters Herbs introduced its exclusive 'Profusion' sorrel. It does not set seed and is only grown from divisions, so you will have to purchase or be gifted with your first plant. But it has a distinct advantage over standard types of sorrel, namely wider leaves, that remain tender and non-bitter longer into the season.

Harvesting Sorrell

Harvesting sorrel typically takes place from late spring through fall. Newly seeded plants take 35 to 40 days to reach baby size and two months to fully mature. Sorrel is ready to harvest when the leaves are about 4 inches long. Tender leaves are best for eating, and if you harvest as cut-and-come-again, you will have a steady supply of young, tender leaves.

Sorrel is widely used in French cuisine for its citrusy touch. You can use sorrel fresh in salads or on sandwiches, and you can also cook with it. The leaves tend to dissolve with long cooking times, imparting their lemony flavor.

Fresh sorrel does not store well. It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or so, but the flavor and texture will decline. You can freeze or dry the leaves, as you would for any other herb, but the flavor will not match that of fresh leaves.

How to Grow Sorrel in Pots

Sorrel is an excellent choice for growing in containers; It's easy to grow and perfect for first-time gardeners. Another advantage of growing in pots is that you can often keep the sorrel growing longer than plants in the ground because you can move the containers to a shady location on warm days. The minimum container size is a 6-inch pot, but 8 to 12 inches is ideal. Make sure the pots have plenty of drainage holes. Water pots with 1 inch of water weekly.

Pruning

Unless you want to save seed, cut off the flower stalks to the ground and remove any declining leaves. The plant should re-sprout with more tender leaves. Sorrel will self-seed if you leave the seed heads on the plants.

Propagating Sorrel

Root division in the spring or fall is the most popular way to propagate sorrel. To keep your plants healthy and vigorous, divide them in spring or early summer every three to five years. Here's how to propagate sorrel by root division.

  1. With a sharp spade or shovel, dig a circle around a clump of sorrel.
  2. Divide the plant by either digging the plant up and dividing roots by hand or digging directly through the plant to create separate clumps. Make sure there is at least a healthy leaf on each divided clump.
  3. Replant each clump in a spot with well-draining, tilled soil and add no more than 1 inch of mulch on top of the backfilled soil. You can also put a clump in a pot, if preferred.
  4. Water regularly (1 inch per week) until established.

How to Grow Sorrel From Seed

Seed can be started indoors or outdoors. But because you can direct sow as early as two to three weeks before the last spring frost date, it is easiest to directly sow seeds in the garden. When starting seeds in pots, space seeds 3 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep in the soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Transplant the sorrel plants when they grow to have at least two sets of true leaves.

Overwintering

Sorrel is a hardy perennial that tolerates temperatures below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Foliage, especially at the top of the plant, will begin to die back in the winter. It's best to rejuvenate your sorrel garden by dividing them in the spring and replacing the plants every few years.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Sorrel is not often bothered by pests, but aphids might settle in. Blast them off with water and thin the plants to make them less attractive as places to hide. Sorrel typically is not bothered by diseases.

FAQ
  • What are the best companion plants to grow outdoors with sorrel?

    Sorrel is known to thrive when grown next to strawberries. It also grows well when planted with rosemary, thyme, and sage. Taller plants can block light from sorrel.

  • What makes the veins red in red-veined sorrel?

    Sorrel typically has oxalic acid in it, but red-veined sorrel has higher levels of oxalic acid. That's what makes the plant's red—and sometimes purple—veins so bright.

  • Can you grow sorrel indoors?

    Some edible greens may not grow well on poorly-lit windowsills. But sorrel makes a great plant for a windowsill garden. Just choose a spot that stays as sunny as possible in the winter, and keep the soil minimally moist and water at soil level so the plant does not attract mold.

Article Sources
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  1. Shamrock. Pet Poison Helpline.