Thursday, 31 July 2014

Non-flowering Sorrel in Australia

Sorrel is a perennial leaf vegetable that I always considered growing, but was not sure how good it is or if I would like it.  It is reasonably difficult to find so I never bothered tracking it down.  Living in such an extreme climate I do not have space or water to waste on novelty vegetables, I need hardy and productive plants.  We also don't have the money to throw away if it turned out not to be worth growing.  

Every source of sorrel I can find only had seeds, no one seemed to offer plants and the seeds were seemingly from poorly maintained stock and never from improved plants.  I considered buying some seeds, but don't want to waste money on inferior plants or start another breeding project.  One day someone kindly offered me a sorrel plant in a trade.  They offered it as well as something that I really wanted so I figured I had nothing to lose.

Sorrel plant

When the sorrel turned up it was a small red green stump with no leaves and very few roots.  Apparently that is how they are best posted and it is how they settle in the fastest.  I planted it and figured it would be a few weeks before I saw any real growth or got to try a leaf.  The next day it had a new leaf and a few days later it had grown several leaves!  I tried a tiny piece of a leaf to see what it tastes like.  It was like any leaf vegetable really but also lemony.  My kids love lemony things and often eat anything sour that they can find so I was happy.

It did not take long before I was able to divide the plant.  I divided it several times by digging it up, ripping it into pieces each with a growing point, removing the leaves, and replanting.  Winter came and the growth slowed, frosts did not seem to worry it.  Some people say that it goes a bit dormant over winter, this may be the case but my winters can be mild and it did have some protection so it kept growing.  Over spring it grew like crazy, I should have divided it into a bunch of plants but kind of forgot about it.  Summer hit pretty hard, the leaves got burned by the heat a few times (as did the leaves of every fruit and vegetable I grew this year) but they kept on growing.  When the weather cooled down the sorrel took off again, this time I dug it up and divided it a little.  When dividing sorrel they do best if you cut off all of the leaves, it seems harsh but it will grow new leaves soon enough.
Sorrel leaves ready for cooking/eating
I have read that sorrel usually has separate male and female plants, sometimes it has a plant that has male and female on the same plant, rarely the highly sort after non-flowering plants turn up.  Flowering stops leaf growth for a while and also makes the leaves bitter so growers often talk of removing flower heads to extend the leaf harvest.

This plant was seed grown by its previous owner so it could have been anything.  After growing it for a while this appears to be a non-flowering (or at least very reluctant to flower) individual.  This means that instead of putting energy into flowers and seeds it puts all of its energy into leaf growth and dividing itself.  It also means that there is no chance of it becoming a weed or crossing with anything else.  When regular sorrel flowers the leaves become coarse and inedible for a while, by not flowering this plant has a much extended harvest period each year. 
Sorrel leaf - non flowering means more leaves

As far as I am concerned, this plant is exhibiting every trait that I would have tried to breed for, this is an improved variety!  There is apparently a variety of sorrel sold overseas known as "Profusion" which sounds similar to mine.  As profusion does not flower (so it does not set seed) and importing the plants is next to impossible my variety is the closest thing we have in Australia.

Growing sorrel is simple.  It likes water, good soil and full sun but grows happily enough if it is a little dry or in the shade or with poor dodgy soil or with competition from other plants.  I have yet to see any pest or disease issues of any kind but am told that a leaf miner bothers it in some gardens.  They say if a leaf has leaf miner to remove that leaf, destroy it, and the problem is solved.  Apparently if the plant gets a lot of leaf miner before you notice you can remove all the leaves and destroy them, sorrel will grow new leaves soon enough.

Sorrel has deep roots so mines nutrients from the subsoil and brings them to the surface in its leaves.  The soil life under sorrel is amazing and healthy.  Permaculturalists grow sorrel as a dynamic accumulator and a compost activator.  It out yields comfrey tremendously on my property, lacks the irritating hairs of comfrey, and unlike comfrey seems to be readily eaten by poultry.  I consider all of this a win.
Small sorrel plants a few weeks after being transplanted and having all the leaves removed
Being perennial means it is low maintenance, I plant once and then can forget about it and know that it will still be there if I want to harvest it, I do not need to collect seeds or remove flowers or anything like that.  Sorrel is nutritious, like many leaf vegetables it is very high in vitamin C.  Many people say that they do not let sorrel flower so that leaf growth is encouraged, with my sorrel this is unnecessary as it does not flower most years.

There are a lot of old (pre-1900) recipes that include sorrel as an integral component of the dish.  Some dishes contain sorrel and very few other things, this is not just a nice herb or a garnish, it is a decent vegetable.  Today sorrel features as a garnish, is often used when cooking fish to impart a lemon taste, is occasionally made into a fancy French soup, and is one of the main ingredients of green borscht.  You can eat sorrel raw but it is high in oxalic acid (like many other vegetables) so it is best not to eat too much.  Oxalic acid is water soluble and cooking removes most of it so you can eat cooked sorrel to your heat's content.

Sorrel was commonly grown in every vegetable garden all over the world for hundreds of years then it pretty much disappeared overnight.  I know of very few people who have ever grown or tasted or even know of this productive plant.  The reason for this is that sorrel can not be harvested and stored and shipped to consumers, it must be harvested and used pretty much immediately.  For a reliable supply you must grow your own, but that is very simple to do.  For many years now people have stopped growing vegetables because they have no land, as such they miss out on tasting treasures such as sorrel.  

I hope that more people grow sorrel, I especially hope that more people grow improved non-flowering forms such as this one.  I would hate for this to disappear if I happen to lose my stock.  I am planning on building up my sorrel in Spring, until then I can sell it in small numbers through my for sale page.


  1. Hi Damo

    My sorrel is much the same as yours, I have never seen it flower or set seed. Can't recall where I got it from, presumably it originated from plant matter not seed. Have you tried cooking it, for me it seems to turn into an unappetising mush at minimal contact with heat, but I've not tried the soup recipes as I don't usually have enough of it.

    By the way the alliums you sent me earlier in the year are doing well, looking forward to seeing some multiplying once the weather starts to warm up in spring here in Adelaide.


  2. Hi Hugh,

    It is great that there is a bit of non-flowering sorrel around. Flowering sorrel sounds like a bit of a hassle. I assume that mine can flower, but it is extremely reluctant to do so. As far as cooking goes it seems to react similar to silverbeet or spinach. If cooked briefly it wilts nicely, anything over a few seconds of heat and it reduces greatly.

    I am glad to hear that the alliums are going well for you. Hopefully they go crazy for you in Spring and you end up with more than enough.

  3. Hi,
    I like sorrel and I was surprised that my new plants has not flowering as natural and has not any seeds. See on the second picture