Sorrel Plant: How To Grow Sorrel

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

The sorrel herb is a tangy, lemony flavored plant. The youngest leaves have a slightly more acidic taste, but you can use mature leaves steamed or sautéed like spinach. Sorrel is also called sour dock and is a perennial herb that grows wild in many parts of the world. The herb is widely used in French cuisine, but is not as well known in the United States.

Learn how to grow sorrel and add a citrus touch to your culinary herb garden.

Sorrel Plant

There are many varieties of sorrel plant, but the most commonly used in cooking is French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is native to North America and is not palatable to humans, but produces nutritious fodder for animals.

Leaf sorrel is cultivated as a garden herb and grows 2 feet (0.5 m.) high with upright stems. The leaves are smooth to crinkled and are from 3 to 6 inches (7.5 to 15 cm.) long. When sorrel herb bolts, it produces an attractive whorled purple flower.

Planting Sorrel

Sow seeds for sorrel plant in spring when the soil has warmed up. Prepare a well drained bed with well tilled soil. Seeds should be 6 inches (15 cm.) apart and just under the surface of the soil. Keep the bed moderately moist until germination and then thin the plants when they reach 2 inches (5 cm.) high.

Sorrel will not need a lot of supplemental care, but the bed does need to be kept weeded and the plants should receive at least 1 inch (2.5 cm.) of water per week.

How to Grow Sorrel

Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and French sorrel are the two cultivated varieties of the herb. Garden sorrel needs damp soils and temperate conditions. French sorrel performs best when it is grown in dry, open areas with inhospitable soils. The plants have very deep and persistent tap roots and grow well with little attention. Planting sorrel from seed or dividing the roots are the two most common ways to propagate the herb.

Sorrel will usually bolt when temperatures begin to soar, usually in June or July. When this happens, you can allow the flower to bloom and enjoy it, but this slows the production of leaves. If you want to encourage larger and more leaf production, cut the flower stalk off and the plant will give you a few more harvests. You can even cut the plant to the ground and it will produce a full new crop of foliage.

Harvesting Sorrel Herb

Sorrel can be used from late spring until fall, with management. Harvest only what you need from the plant. It is much like lettuce and greens, where you can cut the outer leaves and the plant will continue to produce foliage. You can begin to harvest when the plants are 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm.) tall.

The smallest leaves are best in salads and add an acidic tang. The larger leaves are more mellow. The herb is a traditional accompaniment to eggs and melts into creamy soups and sauces.

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Growing Sorrel

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Sorrel makes an excellent soup and sauce. It can be used as watercress and/or spinach in sauce recipes. It is slightly sour (lemony sour) and has the reputation of being a diuretic.

You start off by buying a plant. It's a perennial and will grow year after year, increasing in size as it goes. You can grow it from seed, but people usually buy or beg a root from a friend.

You can try a sample lesson to help you decide if the Herbal Academy of New England is the right choice for you - click the link below .

It grows best in light soil and full sun although it will tolerate some shade - it needs to be sheltered.

It grows to about 2 feet high during the season.

The flowers are reddish green and appear May to July. Cut back the flowers to prevent the plant setting seed and becoming tough.

You can increase your stock by dividing the roots in spring or autumn - plant these about 15 inches apart.

Add a few leaves to a salad - the leaves can be a little bitter for some tastes, so a few leaves added to a green herby salad are best.

Use it in sauce (recipe here Sorrel Sauce) or soup. It is a classic sauce served with fish, particularly salmon. It is used a lot in France where it will be used as a garnish as well as an ingredient. Some people do refer to it as 'French Sorrel' but that's not strictly correct.

Freeze or dry the leaves for out of season use - Preserving Herbs gives instructions for microwave and traditional drying. You freeze it like you would spinach leaves and you can use it pretty much the same.

Growing Sorrel - rescue remedy

If you're lucky enough to have inherited a patch of sorrel but it's weed infested, then treat it like any perennial.

Dig up the clumps in spring or autumn.

Carefully tease out the weeds from the roots and divide the roots into pieces.

Make sure that every piece has some good root and some leaves.

Prepare a bed for the plants, by digging over and making sure that the soil is fine and weed free.

Plant the individual pieces about 15 inches apart, tread them down with your heel, to make sure their roots are firm in the ground and give them a good drink of water.

Keep weed free and you should be rewarded with a very fine crop.

What To Replace Taste For Instead Of Sorrel.

  1. Arugula is a popular option to use instead of sorrel. This is because it has the robustness of flavor that sorrel has, however it has a heavy undertone of pepper. Sorrel does not have this, you will also need to add an acid to your dish. Some people go for lemon juice, but this isn’t quite right. We have found that when cooking arugula you can add a dash of rice wine vinegar to the end of cooking. This works really well when you are doing stir fried spring vegetables. It gives an authentic sharp tartness that sorrel would give.
  2. Rhubarb stalks are used in soups as a substitute for sorrel. Use it sparingly as it does contain those oxalic acids in high levels. Especially important to note is that you should not be using the rhubarb leaves as they are too strong for those who already suffer from kidney stones or other health conditions. You will not need to add the stalks whole, but instead thinly slice them to resemble spring greens. They work well when added 50:50 to kale. So if a recipe asks for 1 cup of sorrel replace it with 1/2 cup rhubarb stalks thinly sliced and 1/2 cup kale shredded. Not advised in raw form though, from experience sorrel has a much more friendly flavor profile when shredded raw, but kale and rhubarb don’t seem to go down as well.
  3. Lovage is a good substitute in a salad with a strong vinegar based dressing. The leaves are salty like celery but they don’t quite have the shooting sharpness that you get when you bite into a sorrel leaf. The texture isn’t quite robust enough either. So if you mix it with other herb leaves as well, dill fronds, fennel, tarragon, chervil etc then it kind of hides amongst it all.
  4. Dill fronds have been suggested as a replacement to use instead of sorrel, however I am not convinced. Dill fronds will still not offer the strength of flavor and they wilt when heated. Sorrel can take a little bit of light cooking and still hold it’s shape, dill just won’t. Also dill has more of a close associated for using instead of fennel for example, rather than instead of sorrel.
  5. Spinach is a popular choice when used in salads. We actually reverse this and when a recipe calls for 1 cup of spinach we may add 2/3 of spinach and 1/3 of sorrel. This just adds a freshness and sharpness to counter an otherwise monotone dish.
  6. Sumac is a handy spice to add to a dish at the start. Use when you are adding your other spices and cook down in the same way. This adds a sharp tartness and should be used sparingly. It will not add any of the greenery that you find with sorrel, however for flavor it is pretty close. You can use sumac with spinach or lovage to give an overall experience that is similar to sorrel. Not all stores wills tock Sumac, so you can find sumac via this link and it will last for around a year in a cool, dark cupboard or larder.

How to Plant Sorrel

Sorrel can be grown from seeds started indoors in early spring, or you can purchase a plant from a nursery. After established, one or two plants will grow into a patch that will produce enough sorrel for most households. Set out plants in spring, around your last frost date, in any fertile, well drained soil. Sorrel plants tolerate light frosts.

For recommended planting dates for your local climate — and to design your garden beds — try our Vegetable Garden Planner.

Sorrel Herb - Tips For Growing Sorrel - garden

Perennial, Rumex Acetosa, Rumex Scutatus

The Sorrel plant is grown in herb gardens for its tangy flavored, arrow-shaped leaves. This cool weather, culinary herb is an easy to grow perennial. Often, they are grown as annuals.

Young, tender Sorrel leaves are used fresh in garden salads. It is also used in soups, or sautйed, like spinach or chard.

Try growing Sorrel plants in containers on a balcony or deck.

There are a couple hundred species of Sorrel. Most varieties grow up to two to three feet tall.

Garden Sorrel varieties include Common Sorrel (Rumex Acetosa) and French Sorrel (Rumex Scutatus). These plants are native to England and Europe.

Other types, many not eaten, include: Mountain Sorrel, Sheep Sorrel, Golden Dock and Western Dock.

The information below describes how to grow and harvest Common and French varieties of Sorrel.

Sorrel plants are grown from seed, or division of their roots.

Directly sow seeds into your garden. Sow seeds early in the season, two to three weeks before the last frost in your area. Cover lightly with 1/2" fine soil.

Space seedlings, or thin plants to 12-18" apart.

How to Grow Sorrel Herb Plants:

Sorrel is easy to grow. The plants prefer full sun and cool weather. They grow well rich, moist soil. Add plenty of compost prior to planting.

For established plants, add compost or mulch to keep weeds down, and retain moisture. Keep well weeded.

Water the plants during dry periods and droughts, once or twice a week Add a general purpose fertilizer once or twice a season.

Harvest young, tender leaves after the plant is about six inches tall. You can aggressively harvest the leaves. New grow will appear.

Remove flowers prior to blooming to extend the growing season.

Aphids can sometimes be a problem. Use only organic controls.

Plant disease is uncommon.

Sorrel Herb's Medicinal Benefits:

Sorrel plants are used as a diuretic.

Sheep Sorrel has been used to treat fever, scurvy and tumors.

Sorrel is sometimes dried and used medicinal teas

Sorrel, Garden

Garden sorrel grows about 3' tall and is great used fresh in salads.


Sorrels are very hardy and will survive in temperatures as low as -30˚ F.

Ideally grows in cool and moist conditions with rich soil, but it's pretty adaptable. Sorrel will grow pretty much anywhere, as long as it isn't too hot.

Plant when soil is at least 45˚ F.

Sorrel does best in full sun, although it will tolerate some shade.

Sorrel will tolerate some drought, but for maximum production keep the soil evenly moist.

Like any green leafy vegetable, it will grow better with a good supply of nitrogen. However, fertilizing isn't necessary because it will grow in almost any soil.

Sorrel will grow well in a container that is at least 6" deep. Be sure to water regularly and keep the soil evenly moist when container gardening.

Tricia shares tips for planting your very own herb garden in containers.

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Care for Sorrel

Thanks to its deep taproot, sorrel can be relatively easy to care for in the garden. As long as you plant it in a spot that gets full sun each day and that has well drained soil, it will need little attention from you.

To give your sorrel a boost, it can be helpful to add a handful or two of compost to the soil before you plant. You can add a bit more compost about halfway through its growing season, too.

Use a light hand when watering sorrel. As a plant from the Mediterranean area, it prefers somewhat drier conditions.

Dividing Sorrel

Since sorrel is an perennial in many areas, there might come a point when it becomes too big for your garden. If that is the case, you can divide the plant to make more room. Some people choose to grow the plant as an annual, pulling it up at the end of each season, so that they don’t have to deal with dividing sorrel.

Usually, gardeners who grow sorrel as a perennial divide the plant every three years or so. To do that, dig up your plants when they aren’t in bloom. Fine Gardening recommends dividing plants when the weather is cool, but the soil is somewhat warm.

Once you’ve dug up the plant, gently break apart its roots, separating it into clumps. Replant the healthiest looking parts of the plant, and either compost or consume the rest.

If you want a step by step demonstration, the video above from the University of Nebraska Lincoln shows you how it’s done.

You can begin harvesting the leaves from a sorrel plant when they are just a few inches tall. The sooner you cut the leaves and use them, the more tender they will be.

To harvest sorrel leaves, cut the outermost leaves from the plant, leaving those in the center. If you cut all the leaves off, you end up halting the growth of the plant. Leaving the center leaves allows the plant to continue to grow.

Sorrel produces tall flower stalks when the weather warms up. To prolong your ability to harvest and use the plant’s leaves, cut the stalks off as they appear. You’ll eventually not be able to keep the stalks from coming up.

Once they do produce flowers, cut the buds off before they set seed, so that you don’t end up with hundreds of baby sorrel plants throughout your garden.

Watch the video: How to grow Sorrel from seed to pot

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