Some wild plants seem to intrigue kids. Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) is one of them. Its leaves have an arrowhead shape and their flavor is sour like a combination of lemon and sour apple. Yes, they are edible, so these weeds pose no real danger. I like the flavor too, but I rarely consume much of it.
This plant is a good indicator of infertile acid soil. It grows in dry open places where most other plants don’t. It also tolerates wetness and even alkaline salty soils, but under those conditions many other weeds dominate it. If your lawn contains much sheep sorrel there’s a good chance you haven’t applied fertilizer or lime recently.
Sheep sorrel is a perennial and very cold tolerant. It is hardy throughout the lower forty-eight and young plants tolerate substantial frost. Most leaves remain close to the ground, but reddish brown flower stalks can be almost two feet tall. Plants are dioecious (individual flowers are either male or female, and entire plants are the same sex) and are pollinated by wind. Seeds mature in early to midsummer.
Many wild animals love it, and eat both leaves and seed heads. Unlike most plants, this herb does not get tough or bitter as it matures. Its flavor and texture remain constant.
This buckwheat relative has been used medicinally for centuries. In Europe as well as America is has been included as a holistic treatment for various cancers. It’s a rich source of potassium, iron, manganese, phosphorous, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. The combination of these vitamins and minerals promotes the glandular health of the entire body. Sheep Sorrel also contains carotenoids, as well as citric, malic, tannic and tartaric acids.
Does it have a downside? In small doses it probably doesn’t. I don’t mind using a little bit to spice up a salad, but I don’t consume large quantities of it as a fresh herb. The reason is its high concentration of oxalic acid.
Oxalates are bad news to people who form kidney stones or suffer from gout. I don’t, but my wife is a stone former. Oxalic acid is water soluble, so boiling the greens would greatly reduce its concentration. Sheep sorrel makes an acceptable cooked green seasoned with a little salt and butter.
Kidney stones and gout are not the only maladies linked to high levels of oxalates. I have arthritis in my hands and feet. Sometimes it can be pretty bad, and oxalic acid aggravates this condition substantially. Many foods I like are high in this compound and its chemical cousins.
What oxalic acid does is interfere with calcium absorption, causing bone and joint problems. It reacts with calcium and other metallic elements like magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Oxalate salts are formed and these materials are bound up and can’t be easily absorbed by the body.
Don’t get paranoid though. Unless your mineral nutrition is very poor you would have to ingest oxalates in mega doses to pose major problems. Eat a variety of foods and enjoy life. Our Lord has given us countless blessings to eat. We’ve also been blessed with a brain and it is our obligation to use to its fullest.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.