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Weekly “What is it?”: Red Sorrel

Red sorrel grows in acidic, low-nutrient soils and blooms in the spring. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

When my son was in middle school, I got a rare midday text from him with a photo. The picture was of a foot-tall, spindly, reddish weed and the accompanying text said, “Mom, do you know what this is? All the kids call it sourgrass and we eat it during PE.” Suddenly invested in the safety of dozens of young teenagers ingesting an unidentified plant, I asked our office horticulture experts, as they routinely talk to homeowners about weed management.

It wasn’t long until we realized he was talking about red sorrel (Rumex acetosella), which is popping up on roadsides, yards, and abandoned fields all over right now. Thankfully, it is safe to eat—in fact, it can be grown as an herb and used in salads. It has a sour, lemony taste (I walked out in the field near our office to try it!), so the kids’ nickname was rather accurate. While safe for human consumption, the leaves contain relatively high levels of oxalic acid, which can be toxic to livestock. It is particularly hard on horses and sheep, so ranchers are wary of it and diligent about its removal in pastures. Its prolific pollen production can also be a nuisance for seasonal allergy sufferers, as it blooms in the spring—along with ragweed—causing hayfever for many.

Up close, one can observe the delicate, pink, buckwheat-shaped flowers of a female red sorrel plant. The stem and leaves of this plant have a lemony flavor. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Northwest Florida typically has slightly acidic soils, which make it a good home for red sorrel. The plant thrives in low nutrients and high acidity, hence its prolific presence in untended ground. Red sorrel is a member of the buckwheat family and was introduced in the United States from Europe. It does have some environmental benefits, as a food source for the American copper butterfly.

Being edible, it is no surprise that there are traditional ethnobotanical uses for the plant. Red sorrel has been used as an antidote for poison and treatment for skin disorders and kidney problems (never use these medicinally without consulting a physician!), and the sap works for furniture polish and ink removal. As it turns out, red sorrel was highly lucrative produce on my son’s middle school campus. When I asked him about the plant again recently, he recalled that some kids who had PE earlier in the day would pick the sourgrass stems, then sell them off for 10 cents apiece to other students! Sometimes being curious about the natural world ends up paying off.