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As with shallots: is it a vegetable or a condiment? Well, who cares? Whichever one calls it, this lemony-flavored leaf is just terrific, a gardening "must-have," ideally in large quantities. We have a favorite recipe for something called, quite descriptively, garlic-parsley sandwiches; with sorrel instead of or mixed with parsley, they move from superb to ineffably good. But such uses take a lot of leaf--a sprig by the side of the plate it ain't!
Sorrel of culinary quality (it, and several close relatives, grow wild and are even sometimes thought of as weeds) is usually called "French" sorrel, but even that is confusing, for both the species R. acetosa and R. scutatus are often called "French sorrel"; curiously, though most of the listed culinary types seem to be R. acetosa, it is R. scutatus that is called "true French sorrel" (also "true sorrel" or "buckler-leaf sorrel") and is, as one source put it, "the sorrel the French prefer . . . and though less acidic than garden sorrel, [its] acidity is claimed to be more 'grateful' whatever that means."
In Europe, there are many named cultivars of R. acetosa in common use--one of the links listed below mentions 8 of them--but in the U.S. the only named variety we have seen offered, and of which we have some growing, is the De Belleville, an R. acetosa cultivar ("large pale-green leaves to [3 inches] long--a small French cultivar that is hardy, fast growing and well-proven to be productive under almost any condition"). Another source, speaking of sorrels generally, says "The most strongly flavored of the sorrels is the garden or belleville sorrel, also called sour dock and sour grass."
Considering that on the one hand it is quite hard to find seed of R. scutatus, while on the other hand R.acetosa may be just as good (or, for those who like their flavors bold, arguably even better), it seems that any seedsman's offer of culinary "Sorrel" (which will almost surely be an R. acetosa type) will do almost as well.
Sorrel is a perennial (hardy to at least Zone 6, with some sources saying Zone 4), so we plant it out once and for all.
Plant in early to middle spring: it grows quickly, so--though some sources give the usual "as soon as the ground can be worked"--waiting till April or thenabouts can't hurt, especially since we're planting once for all (we hope).
A sorrel bed should ideally be in full sun--though sorrel will tolerate and grow in at least some amount of shade--with rich, moist but well-drained soil having a mildly acidic pH (typical garden-soil levels of 6.3 to 6.8 should be fine).
Direct-seed your sorrel, planting the seeds about an inch deep. The conventional guides suggest a plant separation of about a foot, but if you have a deep-dug or raised bed, you can try spacings down to as close as 6 inches (which is what Seymour recommends in his book)--especially if you're growing the notably smaller-than-average De Belleville cultivar ("true french" also looks, from the photos linked above, fairly small and "crowdable").
Keep sorrel quite well-watered. After the first year, when it emerges anew in spring apply a modicum of a balanced organic fertilizer and mulch it with some compost.
Sorrel's growth is a bit peculiar: the wanted leaves grow more or less direct from the ground, and on some cultivars can get as much as 18 inches long, though 6 to 12 inches is more usual (and De Belleville leaves are more commonly 3 inches); but there is also a thin flowering stalk that can reach as much as 4 feet in height (though 1½ to 2 feet is more usual). It's best to simply cut off those flower stems as they emerge (unless, as one source remarked, you want to use them later for dried flower arrangements); if you do let seed develop, at least be sure to remove the flower stalks before the seeds can self-sow, lest your sorrel overflow its bed. You should also uproot any excess plants that emerge on runners.
Leaves can be harvested any time after the first couple of months of spring growth, but they tend to be almost tasteless early on, gradually gaining their characteristic and desired acidity and flavor as the season wears on. They freeze well, especially in purée form, so--except for occasional fresh use in salads or sandwiches--you might as well make a uniform harvest near the end of summer.
Sorrel plants should be divided and replanted every few years; available estimates of "every few" vary from 3 to 5 years (suggesting 4 as a happy medium). Have sorrel once, and you can have it forever. Division can be effected at any time in the growing season, but newly divided plants establish better in the spring. Larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions, with smaller ones generously potted till they beef up a little.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.
Plants For a Future Database: Sorrel - tons of data on the vegetable, and links to lots more
Sorrel - a useful overview, very helpful
"French" or "garden" sorrel is one species of a genus contaning many rather close cousins, also called "sorrel" of one kind or another--wild sorrel, sheep sorrel, grassleaf sorrel, indian sorrel, maiden sorrel, green sorrel, red sorrel, and many more. The species R. acetosa is also sometimes called "French sorrel", and R. scutatus is thus sometimes called "true French sorrel" to distinguish it.
The sorrels are all members of the Polygonaceae (from the Greek for "many-kneed", referring to the characteristic stem joints) family, which does not include any large number of common edibles, though rhubarb belongs, as do dock and buckwheat.
Our modern word "sorrel" comes from the old French surele, which derived from sur, "sour". There are also many common English names for the various sorrels: little vinegar plant, sour grabs, sour suds, Gowke-Meat, sourgrass, green-sauce (a popular dish made with sorrel, vinegar, and sugar), and cuckoo sorrow or cuckoo's meate--because it was believed the bird cleared its throat with sorrel.
Information on the history of sorrel is peculiarly hard to come by. The plant is native to Europe and Asia, but has become widely naturalized in North America; one must assume that its culinary uses were grasped very early on, but that--owing to its profusion in the wild, and generally satisfactory utility in its wild state--breeding and cultivation came to it only quite lately (as did identification, for it seems that till quite recently sorrel was sorrel was sorrel, and species, much less cultivars, scarcely distinguished).
We do know that around 200 B.C., the Greek scientist Diocles wrote, in Book i. of his Health, that "Wild vegetables fit to boil are the beet, mallow, sorrel, nettle, orach, iris-bulbs, truffles, and mushrooms" [emphasis added], suggesting that the plant was at that time regularly eaten, but not cultivated in gardens. Towards the beginning of the thirteenth century, Alexander Neckham writing in his De Naturis Rerum of the ideal garden, said that "There should also be pottage herbs, such as beets, herb mercury, orach, sorrel, and mallows", but one suspects that those were more commonly picked from the wild. We do know, though, that in the time of Henry VIII, wood-sorrel was used as an herb and in salads.
Sorrel is another of those leafy greens (like spinach) whose culinary values depend in good part on their oxalic-acid content. Most people need not be concerned about that, but those with certain conditions--kidney disease, kidney stones, rheumatoid arthritis, gout--do need to be more than ordinarily careful about oxalic acid.
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