A favorite European pot-herb, sorrel (or sour dock), has a pronounced acidic tang, a rich green color, and a pleasing leaf form. It became a mainstay in salads, soups, and sauces. One of its greatest virtues was its early appearance in Spring, supplying a fresh jolt of greenery after the long winter dearth.
Over the centuries the name has come to denominate a range of related plants–the herb Patience (Rumex patientia), Spinach dock (Oseille Epinard), the Belleville sorrel (Rumex acetosa), the round leaved French sorrel (Rumex scutatus—the favorite culinary variety in most locales), the wild sheep sorrel (a weed in the eyes of many early American farmers), and wood sorrel, and a host of other related herbs. All are perennial plants. All grow wild in regions of the world and have been harvested or transplanted to beds and pots for human use. All tend to appear early in the season—from March to April depending where one lives.
The lemony tang of these plants derives from oxalic acid. Its concentration can be so pronounced that one hesitates adding additional acid to dishes including sorrel. Sorrel soup was a fixture of English cuisine at the beginning of the colonial era, and settlers were cheered to find a range of indigenous sorrels used by Native peoples in their cookery. When cultivated in gardens, propagation takes place by root partition of the hardiest and most prolific plants. It has few simple wants: full sunlight, rich soil, and protection from slugs. It establishes a territory in the garden and becomes a fixture, often supplying the first patch of greenery every season.