The fields are blushing.
It is for good reason that the meadows are red-faced. Blame it on embarrassment, but more likely it is sorrel that is the cause. Red sorrel has created that crimson glow.
Red sorrel, also known as dock, sheep sorrel, cuckoo bread, sour weed and field sorrel, might be compared to a blushing bride. Its red stems and flowers color our late spring world.
But its presence indicates more than just a bit of self-consciousness.
Red sorrel is a perennial weed, known for both its negatives and its positives.
The Flora of Martha’s Vineyard calls it “completely alien.” Well, not alien, just foreign, having originated in Eurasia, while other sources note that it is a noxious weed. Farmers knew that when the red sorrel grew, it was time to lime the fields. It is indicative of acidic soils and disturbed areas.
On the plus side, it makes for good eating. Its name, sorrel, comes from the French surele, meaning sour. The taste of its arrow-shaped leaves is described as lemony and these greens can be used in salads, soups and as seasoning. In 1699 John Evelyn insisted that it was “never to be excluded” from his salads.
Madame Bovary would not be without it either. On her wedding day, “The table was set up inside the cartshed. On it there were four sirloins of beef, six fricassees of chicken, casseroled veal, three legs of mutton and, in the centre, a beautiful roasted sucking pig, flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel.” One sweet-toothed author stated that sorrel can also be used for dessert, comparing it to rhubarb.
Even though this weed is called the “little vinegar plant,” it still seems to have lots of foraging fans. Sorrel can also be used as a curdling agent for cheese and provides a nice tartness when added raw to dishes.
Livestock, however, should not follow the human example; they ought to eat it sparingly, since it contains oxalates which can be poisonous in large amounts.
Sorrel also proves to be good medicine. As a folk remedy, it is believed to treat inflammation, cancer, diarrhea, scurvy and fever. The most original use was that of a vermifuge, which is a preventative for intestinal worms. Eat up to ward off parasites.
So don’t feel any shame if you love the ruddy look and tempting tartness of this spring plant. You are among good friends. Henry David Thoreau, in speaking of the seasons, observed both the ephemeral nature and unique plants of the season when he said, “This is June, the month of grass and leaves . . . already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone . . . . A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature. Now I am ice, now I am sorrel. Each experience reduces itself to a mood of the mind.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.