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. It sometimes gets classified as an herb and sometimes as a vegetable. Either way, gardeners in the U.S. don't grow enough of it. Sorrel plants prefer the cool seasons of spring and fall, quickly bolting to seed as the weather heats up. The two most commonly grown species are garden sorrel (Rumex acestosa) and French sorrel (Rumex scutatus).

Sorrel plants have smooth, 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.

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

Botanical Name Rumex acestosa (Garden sorrel), Rumex scutatus (French sorrel)
Common Name  Sorrel, garden sorrel, French sorrel, sorrel dock, sour dock, sour leek, spinach dock
Plant Type  Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size  12 to 18 inches tall, 18 to 24 inches 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 to 7 (USDA) 
Native Area  Europe, Asia
Toxicity  Toxic to dogs, cats, horses

How to Plant Sorrel

You can start sorrel from seed, cuttings, root division, or transplant, in either spring or early fall. Seed can be started indoors or out, but since you can direct sow as early as two to three weeks before your last spring frost date, it is easiest to simply sow in the garden. Sow the seed 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 average family's need.

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. To keep your plants healthy and vigorous divide them in spring or early summer every 3three to four years.

Sorrel is not often bothered by pests, but aphids may settle in. Blast them off with water and thin the plants, to make them less attractive as hiding spots. You should not have any disease problems with your sorrel.

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

Plants will grow best in full sun, although a little partial shade will keep them going longer into summer.

Soil

Choose a spot with good drainage. Sorrel likes a slightly acidic soil pH; somewhere in the range of 5.5 to 6.8. Since sorrel is grown for its leaves, a soil rich in organic matter will give you lots of leafy, green growth.

Water

Give your sorrel plants regular water; at least 1 inch per week. Mulching will help conserve moisture and keep the leaves clean.

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 more organic matter and possibly side-dress with compost or granular fertilizer applied mid-season.

Is Sorrel Toxic?

While sorrel leaves are safe for humans to eat, the plant contains soluble oxalates that are toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Ingestion of small amounts of sorrel typically causes gastrointestinal upset, but eating large amounts and/or frequent ingestion can cause twitching (muscle fasciculation), weakness, seizures, and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).

Sorrel Varieties

There aren't many seeds or sorrel plants with named varieties. They are usually just sorrel, garden sorrel, or French sorrel. French sorrel has smaller leaves and a more subtle flavor than garden sorrel.

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

There are also four more relatives in the Rumex genus that are edible:

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

Harvesting

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.

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, 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 container growing. You should use at least a 6-inch pot, but 8 to 12 inches is ideal. One advantage of growing in pots is that you often keep the sorrel growing longer than plants in the ground because you can move the containers out of the sun on warm days.