Foraging for Wood Sorrel
Common Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is one of those wild plants that draws people into the world of wild food. It might be something thrust under the nose by an enthusiastic friend or family member, urging the wary novice to try. The three heart-shaped leaves will put them in mind of Clover (although it is no relative) and maybe the white flower will make them think of Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa. However once they taste either the leaf or flower they will remember that taste forever… and then start thinking about apple peel and lemons…
Common Wood Sorrel is easily found across the U.K., in woodlands, hedgerows and the edges of lawns and fields. The main identifying features are:
– Three heart-shaped leaves, each about the size of a fingernail (sometimes slightly bigger)
– Five white petals on flower (April-July), often with fine purple veins running down the petals
– Distinctive citric/mildly acidic taste in all parts of the plant (caused by oxalic acid)
Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is from the Oxalidaceae family, of which Oxalis is by far the most common genus. There are over 800 species in this genus, many of which are called ‘wood sorrels’ as they share a taste with the ‘proper’ Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), although they are entirely unrelated.
Using and Finding
Foraging for Wood Sorrel is easy in principle but harder in practice. It is easily found and identified, but the gathering of more than a handful is a task likely to put off even the keenest forager. To gather enough for a decent salad will take an hour or more, and care must be taken to ensure you do not uproot the fragile stems. A pair of scissors can be a useful tool in gathering.
Wood Sorrel can be found all year, but the freshest, softest growth begins in late March and runs through until the end of summer, depending on the temperature and weather that year. It is worth noting that the leaves have a tendency to fold back down in cold or wet weather.
It has been used as a foodstuff for millennia, notably by North American tribes such as the Kiowa, Potawatomi and Algonquin who chewed it to alleviate thirst, cooked it with sugar to make dessert and used it as an aphrodisiac and as a medicinal plant. I confess that I have not noticed any effects other than as a tasty wild food!
Things to watch out for…
Wood Sorrel has few imitators in the U.K. to get it confused with, but the chemical that causes the taste (oxalic acid) needs some caution. In large quantities it can be lethal (which would require the ingestion of many kilos of Wood Sorrel) but in smaller doses it has been linked to kidney stones (of which calcium oxalate is a major component), liver and stomach problems, joint problems and other complications. Like any wild food it should be eaten in moderation, and is probably best avoided if one is pregnant or suffers from kidney stones or gout.
The roots have a greater concentration of oxalic acid than the leaves and flowers, although are still edible.