Common sorrel and other docks

Wild Food Foraging Guide to the Edible Wild Plants of Britain.

Foraging Common sorrel and other edible docks. Hard to miss, easy to identify, nutritious, medicinal herbs

Foraging common sorrel, sheeps sorrel, curly dock, broad leaf dock, water dock

Common sorrel and other closely related dock species are all plants you can find without looking! Just as easy to spot in towns as they are in the countryside, these plants are constant foraging companions.

Common sorrel grows in clumps of untidy rosettes from its perennial tap roots
Common sorrel grows in clumps from a perennial tap root

They are members of the large Rumex genus within the rhubarb family, Polygonaceae. This common plant family also contains japanese knotweed, buckwheat and bistort. The Rumex genus consists of 200 species of annuals, biennials, and perennials.

The name ‘dock’ is derived from the old English ‘docce’ – simply meaning ‘course large-leaved weed’. Hence, the unrelated burdock was ‘the coarse, large-leaved weed with burs’!

The edible and medicinal docks dealt with here are notable for their yellow-coloured tap roots. This colour suggests the reason why docks were previously instinctively thought of as good for the liver, and for bilious conditions.

Sheep sorrels leaveshave distinctive side lobes but taste the same as common sorrel
Sheep sorrel’s leaves have distinctive side lobes

My favourite edible docks by far are the sorrels, with common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) being the most plentiful; whereas sheep’s sorrel (R.acetosella) is locally common in some areas. When out walking or foraging you will soon spot just how common sorrel and other docks are.

A bite size look at common sorrel.


Botanical description of common sorrel and other docks.

Common sorrel has arrow-shaped leaves, with the winter ones being thicker and tougher.
Common sorrel has arrow-shaped leaves with white mid-veins and downward pointing lobes

At a glance, the sorrels have noticably arrow-shaped leaves. Their leaves are smaller and more narrow than most other docks. Common sorrel will be found with downward-pointing basal lobes and a notable white mid-vein (these two features separate the tasty sorrel from the dangerous lords and ladies – Arum maculatum). Sheep’s sorrel leaves are smaller and identified by prominent side lobes at the base of the leaf. 

The distinctive papar sheath or ocrea, found on all rhubarb family plants

One of the key diagnostic features for the whole rhubarb family will be found on the stems. There you will see a pronounced angled joint, always initially covered in a papery sheath, or ocrea. You can see this family pattern repeating across all the various members of the family. 

Curly dock with its narrow and ‘ripply round the edges’ look

All our docks have quite broad leaves on long petioles. The curly dock (R.crispus) has oblong-lanceolate leaves with distinctly wavy or crispy margins. These are tapered inwards at the base.

Broad leaved docks are occasionally found with red stems

The broad leaved dock (R.obtusifolius) has larger, more oval-oblong leaves, displaying less of a wavy edge. They are cordate at their can base.

Water dock grows in abundance on some rivers. Lovely long acidic  leaf stalks.

The stem leaves of broad-leaved dock become increasingly narrower on the flowering stem. Often the stem leaves will have stipules at the base of the petioles.

The very young leaves will have a slight hint of oxalic acid like their relative, the sorrel. Water dock (Rumex hydrolapatham) long leaf stalks are very acidic. This plant can grow in dense stands on mudflats and riverbanks 

All docks have a very similar looking inflorescence. Their flowering stems are green but can also carry a red-stripe. The broad leaved docks are occasionally found with completely red stems. 

The stems are smooth, round, and fluted, with a solid, pithy core and few hairs, if any> Dock flowering stems branch at acute angles towards the top.

Curly dock flowering clusters

The flowers are individually small and don’t really catch the eye unless in close quarters. They are green or red, dependent on species.

They have six, green, petal-like sepals. Three tiny outer ones, and three larger inner ones, surrounding the ovary. Typically 5-10 mm long, the flowers emerge from the upper leaf axils, growing on small stalks in dense whorled clusters, on branches 5-20 cm long.

The clusters of deep crimson pink flowers on a broad leaved dock are similar to the flowers found on common sorrel
Clusters of deep crimson pink flowers on a broad leaved dock

Dock flowers are scentless and often carry red ‘wart-like’ growths on the inner sepals. It is the size and shape of the sepals, plus the presence and shape of the ‘warts’ that helps distinguish between the numerous and similar looking dock species.

Habitats to look in when foraging common sorrel and docks

The gorgeous common sorrel flowers can be found in late spring throwing thread-like wisps of pink across meadows and fields
Common sorrel flowers. Waving wisps of pink across meadows and hedgebanks in late spring

The common sorrel shares nearly all its habitats with other close relatives. Look in fields, woodland clearances and woodland edges, hedgerows, coastal locations and wastegrounds in urban serttings. You won’t need to look too long.

Parts used Root, leaves, stems, leaf stalks and seeds.

Harvest Roots: early spring or autumn. Leaves: when small and young.

Key constituents Tannins; flavonoids (including quercetin, lutin); anthraquinones (emodin, chrysophanol); phytosterols (beta-sitosterol, daucosterols); phenolic acids (isovanillic acid, p-hydroxycinnamic acid).

Actions Astringent, anti-bacterial, cholagogue, alterative, tonic, aperient, anti-oxidant.

Brown seed laden dock plants are everywhere in the summer, including common sorrel
Brown, seed-laden dock plants are everywhere in the summer

Pharmacology and uses These plants are a somewhat recent addition to the European herbal pharmacopeia. However, they have been a mainstay in the medicinal repertoire of Native American indiginous people.

North American physicians brought these plants to the attention of western herbalists in the latter half of the 19th century. Previously the plant had enjoyed centuries of use by the indiginous people.

The reported anti-bacterial action stems from phenolic acid components, whilst the flavonoids are known for anti oxidant activity. Members of the Rumex genus are gentle laxatives, or aperients. It is likely that the small amounts of anthraquinones are responsible for this action as they are in rhubarb. Read more about the important medicinal plant constituents and actions.

Broad leaved dock coming into flower

Alterative herbs such as dock, act in a non-specific way on the digestive tract and liver. Through helping the liver remove toxins, alteratives are known as blood purifiers. They are often employed to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, boils, eczema, and for any conditions where skin eruptions and itching are prominent.

Docks help the digestive system by enabling the increase of gastric juices, including bile, and by encouraging bowel movement. This is partly due to their bitterness. Culpeper mentioned that ‘bloodroot’ (as docks were often called), ‘purified the blood and strengthened the liver’. By detoxifying and tonifying, the liver becomes less congested and stronger. In days long gone, docks were also used to treat scurvy.

With a high concentration of iron, docks are helpful in treating anaemia. The root has been used as a poultice for this very reason. The tannins and thier astringent qualities mean internally irritated membranes will be soothed and protecte. Externally the root will be useful in treating haemorrhoids.

Many people have heard of using docks for treating nettle stings, and the majority of them might agree that rubbing dock leaves on the stings was very nearly pointless. That’s because it’s the gel from the new leaf shoots at the centre of the plant that help with stings and burns, not the leaf. I still prefer ground ivy for nettle stings, but finally I’m appreciating docks, thanks to Monica Wilde.

Sheep’s sorrel is becoming increasingly well known as one of the herbs in Essaic tea. Manufacturers of Essaic tea point to the use of sheep’s sorrel in fighting cancer, and aiding cellular regeneration. 

All of the Rumex genus have completely edible above-ground parts, though not many are tasty when eaten raw, like the sorrels. The common sorrel has been celebrated in France, where numerous recipes exist for sorrel soup and sauces. The sour and tart flavour of sorrel make it a superb accompaniment to fish dishes. It’s distinctive sour flavour is due to oxalic acid. The plant family as a whole are noted for higher-than-average oxalic acid content. People with kidney stones should avoid foods that are rich in oxalic acid

Docks are nutritious food, but the majority of them are too coarse for salads or tender spinach. In a survival situation, the docks will be one of the first going in the cooking pot.

The wood dock (Rumex  sanguineous) and the water dock are two other plants in the genus that I will freely eat. Young wood dock leaves carry hints of oxalic acid, similar to sorrel, whilst older leaves quickly become bitter and more fibrous. The leaves contain a higher nutritional punch than spinach, containing roughly one third more iron. Docks have more fibre and Vitamin A than an equal amount of carrots.

Baby wood dock leaves, a more tender, annual dock

The wood dock has a somewhat delicate leaf when picked small and young. These somewhat more tender leaves usually offer  more noticable sour tones.

The water dock will be found with leaves up to 1 m long, and growing on 30 cm leaf stalks. When young these are worth using as a rhubarb replacement with pronounced crunch.

The blood veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus var sanguineous) has become a popluar salad variety, and will occasionally be found growing naturalised in the UK. This plant is essentially a red-veined version of the wood dock, and doesn’t replace sorrel for flavour or texture.

Discover more  foraging tips and hacks to fast track your success. Know at a glance which plant and what plant parts are in season, with this downloadable set of colour coded harvesting charts.

If you would like to learn the practical skills of the forager, then book a place on any of my upcoming foraging courses. There’s no better time to start learning than today!

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