Red sorrel (Rumex acetosella), also know as sheep sorrel and sour weed, was introduced from Europe and is now found throughout the West. A perennial, red sorrel can be found in disturbed sites and occasionally in undisturbed open forests.
The leaves of red sorrel are narrow and highly variable. The basal leaves have long stalks while the stem leaves are short-stalked or sessile (without a stalk). Above the base of each leaf is a membranous sheath that surrounds the stem. The thin stem is unbranched below the inflorescence (flower cluster).
A member of the buckwheat family, red sorrel flowers are small and consist of three sepals and three petals, both scale-like. Male and female flowers are on separate plants. Male flowers have long, hanging stamens. The flowers are clustered on loose, leafless panicles (branched inflorescence) and bloom from the bottom up.
Red sorrel is spread by seeds and rhizomes. The rhizomes are very delicate and easily break into pieces. Each rhizome piece is capable of resprouting and forming a new plant. Red sorrel can be such a prolific spreader that it is often classified as a noxious weed.
The leaves of red sorrel are very tart due to the presence of oxalic acid. The leaves are edible and are rich in Vitamin C and calcium. I enjoy nibbling a few leaves when out hiking as the tart taste is refreshing. Sorrel leaves can also be added to salads or soups. Oxalic acid forms oxalate salts in the body, which can interfere with calcium metabolism, so eating excessive amounts of red sorrel is not recommended. However, a little will not harm you – spinach also contains oxalic acid.
Sorrel comes from the French word “surelle”, a diminutive of the Lower German word “suur”, meaning sour. The sour taste is further emphasized by the genus name Rumex, Pliny’s name for sorrel, which also means sour.
These red sorrel plants were in the meadow near the Lower Campground at Ash Creek (Lassen County CA).