Sorrel is an easy, low-maintenance and hardy perennial with edible, sharp-tasting leaves. Sorrel has long been grown as a medicinal and culinary herb, and before lemons became widely available it was used to add a tart, tangy flavour to many dishes.
Red veined sorrel
There are three species often grown for eating:
French or buckler-leaved sorrel (Rumex scutatus) – small shield-shaped leaves with lemony tang, ideal for adding to salads
Red-veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus var. sanguineus) – the long, pointed leaves with a dark red mid-rib, veins and stem are both decorative and edible, with a sharp flavour
Broad-leaved sorrel or common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) – a British native forming a clump of long leaves that have an astringent taste. Use baby leaves in salads or cook like spinach
Native sheep’s sorrel ( R. acetosella) is also edible, but not generally grown as a garden herb, although it is sometimes used as foraged wild leaves. Several species of oxalis are also commonly known as sorrel, but these are ornamental plants, wildflowers or weeds.
The three edible species of sorrel form low leafy plants, which are best harvested regularly to encourage a steady supply of fresh young leaves. Older leaves can become tough and bitter. They will send up tall flower spikes in summer, which should be removed if you want to keep picking the leaves. If the leaves get too large, simply cut them back to encourage fresh young growth.
Sorrel is easy to grow from seed or can be bought as young plants, and is happy in sun or light shade, in most types of soil. Plants live for several years, dying back over winter then re-sprouting from the ground in spring – although young plants may be more productive, so you may prefer to sow them fresh each year.
Month by Month
There are three species of sorrel that are grown for their edible leaves and can be easily confused, but each looks different and offers slightly different qualities:
Buckler-leaved or French sorrel with its small, juicy citrus-flavoured leaves is the most popular for adding to salads. It makes a low mound (about 15cm/6in high) of attractive bright green, shield-shaped foliage. It can become invasive. It prefers a sunny spot.
Red-veined sorrel with its ruby-patterned leaves is an eye-catching addition to a herb garden, veg plot or ornamental display. Baby leaves add a splash of colour and tart kick to salads. It forms a low, ground-hugging, spreading clump.
Broad-leaved or common sorrel is larger and less ornamental that other sorrels. It forms a more upright clump and its flower spike can reach up to 1m (3½ft) tall, looking similar to a dock (a close relative). It thrives in sun or light shade. The leaves have an astringent flavour and can be cooked like spinach.
All three are easy to grow, either from seed or young plants, and are perennials so should last several years.
You’ll see many herbs and salad crops, including sorrel, growing in the veg plots and herb collections in the RHS gardens, so do visit to see how they are grown, compare the different types and pick up useful tips.
What & where to buy
Seeds and young plants of all three sorrels are widely sold by garden centres and online retailers. Young plants are mainly available in spring and summer.
One or two plants are usually sufficient for most needs, as the leaves are only used quite sparingly, unless you cook them. However, red-veined sorrel is so attractive that it’s often grown more widely for decorative purposes, such as an edging for a bed.
All three types of sorrel are easy to start from seed or you can save time and buy a ready-grown plant so you can start picking leaves immediately.
In spring, sow a few seeds in a small pot, 1cm (½in) deep. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, move them into individual pots. Keep in a warm bright spot and water regularly.
The young plants can be transplanted outside in late spring or early summer – see Planting, below.
Sow seeds into warm soil from mid-spring, in a drill 1cm (½in) deep. They can also be sown into containers filled with a peat-free soil based compost. Sow seeds sparingly, as just a few plants is usually sufficient.
Protect the seedlings from slugs and snails, water regularly until well rooted and thin out to 15–20cm (6–8in) apart if necessary.
Red veined sorrel, Rumex sanguineus var sanguineus
Common or broad-leaved sorrel, Rumex acetosa
Harden off first to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions. Ideally choose a growing site with rich, fertile soil, although sorrel will tolerate almost any well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. It can also be planted in a large container at least 30cm (1ft) wide and filled with a peat-free soil based compost.
Young plants are vulnerable to slugs and snails, so take steps to control or deter them.
Sorrel generally needs little maintenance, apart from watering in dry spells and regular harvesting to encourage new leaves. Pinch out the flower stems to keep plants producing fresh leaves.
Water seedlings and newly planted sorrel regularly until well rooted. Plants growing in the ground should then only need watering in warm, dry weather.
Sorrel in a container needs regular watering throughout the growing season, as the compost will dry out quickly, especially in summer.
Apply a thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, around sorrel plants to help hold moisture in the soil and deter weeds.
Keep seedlings and young plants weed-free, to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients.
Protecting in winter
Sorrel is fully hardy, so needs no extra protection in winter. Its top growth dies down in late autumn and leaves sprout from the ground again in early spring.
Make sure plants in containers don’t get waterlogged over winter, as the roots may rot – you could move them to a sheltered spot, out of heavy rainfall.
Divide established sorrel plants every couple of years in spring or autumn to rejuvenate congested clumps and ensure plants are productive.
If sorrel is allowed to flower and scatter its seeds, you will usually get plenty of young seedlings appearing nearby. Alternatively, collect the ripe seeds and sow them where you want them to grow.
Sorrel Rumex acetosella
Sorrel Rumex acetosa
Choose the young tender leaves, which have the strongest citrus tang.
The leaves are best used fresh, in salads and sandwiches, and scattered over various cooked dishes, including eggs and fish. The leaves can also be steamed like spinach.
Once settled in, sorrel is usually robust and healthy. Seedlings and young leaves should be protected from slugs and snails. Soft new growth may also attract aphids, although treatment is rarely necessary.
To keep plants productive, pick leaves regularly and remove flower stalks as soon as they start to form. Removing the flowers also prevents self-seeding if you don’t want more plants.
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