Monday, March 2, 2009

Lowly sorrel a surprising, edible treat

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 1, 2009)

Remember fields? They are those expansive stretches of landscape uninterrupted by trees, shopping centers, tract homes, condos or parking lots.

If you've passed by one lately, that is, if you are fortunate enough to live in an area where acres of open space still exist — you might have noticed a reddish tint to the grasses waving in the breeze. The cause of this botanical blush is the seed stalks of the Rumex acetosella plant, better known as sheep sorrel, sour sorrel, common sorrel or the visually descriptive moniker, red sorrel.

As its blush suggests, Rumex acetosella is a modest plant, unassuming but pervasive. A perennial herb with edible stem and leaves, sorrel's lowly stature and ubiquitous nature cause many to consider it a weed. It pops up in gardens and lawns alike, in open fields and meadows, in sandy or gravelly soil. Wherever there are sunny expanses — even in disturbed, nutritionally poor soil — sorrel plants are apt to take root.

When we first moved to our south Lake County homestead 17years ago, sorrel-covered meadows were so widespread, we named one of our roads after the omnipresent herb. We'd munch on the lemony leaves when taking walks, and at dinnertime we would send the kids out to collect a handful of the plant's arrow-shaped leaves to mix with lettuce for a tasty salad. Sorrel leaves are slightly juicy and mildly astringent. They add a satisfying crunch to tossed salads and a pleasing tang to sandwiches and stir-fries.

So many sorrel plants grew in our "lawn" that the kids didn't have far to go to gather what was needed.

Our three oldest children have long since grown up and moved away, but their fondness for sorrel has remained intact. Unfortunately, fields of the red-stalked plants diminished as we added more trees and bamboo to the landscape. Sorrel still exists but instead of covering acres, it forms a patchwork of individual plants.

This past week, our older children rediscovered some of those patches during a trip home to celebrate our youngest son's birthday. In addition to time spent talking and making meals, we juggled clubs in the backyard, played board games and took walks around the lake. It was on one of those walks that Timmy, our oldest son, noticed the sorrel. He plucked a few leaves off a plant and nibbled them as he walked.

Seeing Timmy munch on the tangy greens reminded me of the special connection people can have with specific plants. As a child in Pennsylvania, I used to pick wild blackberries when I walked along the old railroad track. Now, 50-some years later, every time I pick a blackberry, I flash back on my youthful home.

During the years Ralph and I lived on Cape Cod, wintergreen berries were among my favorite wild edibles. Whenever I strolled through the woods during autumn, my eyes would seek out the small red berries hidden beneath the low growing ground cover. I miss the minty taste of those berries — they don't grow in Florida — but I still remember how much I enjoyed them and how exciting it was to fill up my pockets with enough of the tiny round fruits to last for the entire walk.

It doesn't take much to trigger a memory. Songs do it. Smells do it. Plants do it too. Fields of sorrel may no longer be a large part of our Florida landscape, but the memories they trigger are not about to disappear. Rumex acetosella is undeniably a common, lowly plant that some people consider a weed, but to our family it's special: It's the flavor of home, of family and time spent together.

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