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Forgotten herb: sorrel

Sorrel comes in a bunch of different varieties. I grow French sorrel in my garden. Wild sorrel grows in the woods and along parking lots throughout the US and Europe. My French and English friends might be surprised that I’m writing about sorrel in a  forgotten herb series. They haven’t forgotten it. Americans have.

close enough pronunciation “sore-uhl”

french sorrel

We imported it in earnest in the 1700s and forgot about it entirely sometime in the 1900s. Hey, it’s ok. A 200-year run is longer than I will have.

One of my favorite gardening moments happened last year when a friend from my kid’s preschool pulled into my yard in her Tesla. She saw me in the garden and decided to stop by. She spent a few minutes asking me to identify plants for her. You know I loved it! Then without me saying a word, she gasped, “Oh sorrel! I haven’t seen it since I was a kid in Belgium.” I told her she could have some anytime.

Americans are surrounded by wild-growing sorrel, but most of us never even notice it. Although, Google Trends tells me there is a slow, steady increase happening in the number of searches for “sorrel”. I mean slow increase though. We’re in year eight, still going.

Again, Vermont leads the States in searches for a forgotten herb. Number two by the skin of their teeth is Utah. Why Utah? Someone from Utah please tell me why your people are searching for sorrel. By the way, if you do just a few more googles in Utah, you’ll bump Vermont down to #2. Just letting you know.


Sorrel in the wild

You probably crushed some sorrel by accident the last time you went on a hike. It grows wild almost everywhere in the US. I never suggest you eat anything growing wild. It’s  dangerous, especially if you haven’t taken classes or become an expert at identifying wild plants. However, if you were an expert plant identifier and lost in the forest, you could survive on sorrel for awhile; then, you’d get kidney stones from all the oxalic acid.

But, on the bright side, you’d bunk scurvy because one cup of sorrel has more Vitamin C than an orange. It might be even healthier than a cup of kale. I don’t know. We can debate it.

Eating sorrel

Sorrel is delicious as a fresh, green bed for steamed white fish. In fact, my number one recommendation for cooking with sorrel is to use it fresh, wash it and lay it down under a steaming, hot piece of seasoned white fish. Do not steam the sorrel. It doesn’t really hold up well when cooked. It’s better with a raw crispness to it.

My second favorite way to eat sorrel is just straight from the garden. The tart leaves bring a burst of flavor to salads. It would be delicious used as an accent herb in a coleslaw.

Online (or in France) you’ll see sorrel cooked into a soup or a sauce. It’s just good, not great made into a soup. Je suis desolee. It gets a little slimy when heated. I have not tried it chopped into an herbed butter, but I think I’d like that better.

It tastes sour, which shouldn’t become a craving, but I crave the flavor of sorrel. I get my quick fixes with common wood sorrel that you may recognize from a crack in the sidewalk nearest you. Wood sorrel grows everywhere, but please don’t ever eat anything you are unsure of or haven’t researched extensively. Wood sorrel looks like other plants that will at least give you a stomach ache.

Wood sorrel growing in my garden

Sometimes on the internet, I see the taste of sorrel described as citrus. Oooh, that’s not exactly accurate. What they probably mean is that it is a bit tart. There is a sour, lemon-like quality. But if you are expecting an orange or grapefruit flavor when you bite into sorrel, you’ll be disappointed. It’s more like a slightly unripe kumquat.

Why I grow sorrel

I started growing French sorrel in my garden because I read about it in old gardening books. Apparently, our great-great grandparents would be surprised we go our whole lives without eating sorrel in the States. Of course, our great-great grandparents likely had accents from places that did and do still eat sorrel regularly.

My favorite thing about this rich, green plant is that it is the first arrival in my garden in the Spring. Its green shoots give me Spring fever every year, and I just can’t wait to get into the garden and start planting some more.

I’m in Zone 6a. The internet tells me sorrel is only a perennial up to Zone 5. Since my sorrel grows right through the snow in March, I wonder if it doesn’t push that zone a little more. Would someone in a lower zone please weigh in on that?

Blood-veined sorrel is really beautiful.

I grow this French sorrel in my backyard garden. It’s low maintenance for sure!

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I did not know people did this. What is a yard walk?

Little kid walking on a trail in the woods

I wish I knew sooner about yard walks. It never even occurred to me that people did this, but when I did, I loved it.

Now, I owe my friend, Kaye, for introducing me to yard walks.

YARD WALK: a stroll around your own backyard with an expert in identifying herbs (and other plants), who can tell you the story behind the herb. Is it is medicinal, edible, toxic, native, invasive, infamous, or forgotten? It’s a good time. You should organize a party around it. 

Kaye bought a new house last year. Instead of inviting us to a pretty traditional housewarming and touring everyone through all the rooms on the inside of the house, she made her first get-together about the outdoors. Most of us can relate to her feelings about indoor tours causing too much pressure to paint and clean and unpack. Most of us have said, “Oh you gotta see the new place. Some time, when it’s ready, I’ll have you over.”  Instead of procrastinating and pretending like she would ever feel ready for a full-blown housewarming party, Kaye invited us to a yard walk at the new place.

There are so many interesting ‘weeds’ in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, there are interesting wild things growing in your flower pots, at the park down the street or between the cracks in your sidewalk.

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An experienced yard walker can stand in one spot and point to 12 different plants around you, identify them and tell their stories. Are they native plants or stowaways from some long-ago ship voyage? Can you eat them? Are they poisonous? Are they medicine? What did people do with them 200 years ago? Did we forget about them?

In 45 minutes of walking Kaye’s yard, I learned (and retained) as much as I have in some college courses. It reframed the way I looked at my own yard…


Ok, that’s not my yard.  It’s Torrey Pines in San Diego. But it’s such a nice view. More about that later.

Many of us are looking for easy ways to connect with others, to spend time with friends or invest time in forming new friendships. We come up with ideas like bookclubs, guys nights out or cookie swaps. I recommend you add hosting a yard walking party to that list of ideas for get-togethers. Even if you or your friends are not nature buffs, it is an experience. It’s empowering to learn how to look at something that’s been hiding in plain sight your entire life and identify it.


The everyday weed in this photo is mullein. Up until the last 100 years, the leaves were brewed into a tea for sore throats. (Full disclosure, I did not see this one on Kaye’s yard walk, but I have some in my own yard.)

Problem: it’s not exactly like yard walkers advertise like lawyers. You won’t see their photo on the side of a city bus.

If you have a local university, botanical or garden center, that would be a good place to start. Many local agencies have departments that study native or invasive plants and may offer you some resources. Try the American Herblists Guild membership lists. They might not exactly have what you need, which is more like a wild plant ranger. You can do an online search for “wild herb walks” or “herblists” near you.

If you are lucky enough to have a nature center near you, they may offer foraging hikes or woodland discovery tours that are in the same spirit of a yard walk but lack some of the personal connection. I mean few things are as personal as getting acquainted with the hundreds of plant species growing in your own backyard or on your block.

Would you help me brainstorm other places to find experienced yard and herb walk guides?

Hey you. Me?

Yes, you, the person reading this article. If you can think of additional resources or you’ve been on an herbal or yard walk, please add a comments about it.

For the do-it-yourselfers, there are field guides you can buy. Peterson’s are popular, but I found myself squinting at some of the sketches not really sure if I was looking at an invasive or a native. Please don’t ever eat wild plants you are unsure of or if you don’t know whether they might be sprayed with pesticides.

When I was at Torrey Pines getting that photo pictured earlier, my family and I hiked the cliffs along the shore. While we were passing through the trails, I spotted some native wild sage. Not only could I identify it on sight, my proud mama moment was when my six year old spotted it and yelled, “Sage!”

Come on. How is that real life? But it was. Well done, kid.


If you want to learn more, visit my on-going series about forgotten herbs.


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Queen Anne’s Lace: Both Royal Diva and Outlaw

A beautiful article from The Herb Society of America about a pretty herb that most people probably overlook. Add some Queen Anne’s Lace to any flower arrangement. Snap the stem and breathe in the delicate scent of wild carrot, a cousin to the bigger roots you might eat with humus.