Common Wood Sorrel, Fairy Bells, Wood Sour, Cuckoo’s Meat
Common Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is often listed as being toxic in wild flower identification books, but it is recommended by many foragers. There are some potential health and toxicity issues to be aware of (see below), but in small quantities it is quite a good edible wild plant with a refreshing/tangy flavour.
Where does Wood Sorrel grow?
Wood Sorrel can be found all year round, although the flowers are only really around from April-June in the U.K.
The plant can be found in the northern hemisphere in shady woodlands and I have found it in pretty much every European country I have visited. It seems to prefer partly-shaded areas of the forest floor and where it does establish itself it can carpet large areas of the forest floor, occupying the gaps between other plants and shrubs.
Is Wood Sorrel edible?
Common Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)is sometimes listed as being a toxic plant in wild flower identification keys, and as being a prized edible in foraging guides. One of my favourite wild flower guidebooks (Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe W.Lippert and D.Podlech 1993) lists it alongside a skull-and-crossbones icon, just above the listing for White Bryony (Bryonia alba) which is one of the more toxic plant in the wilds of the U.K.
All of this comes from the presence of oxalic acid throughout the plant. This organic compound can lead to various medical issues when ingested in different forms, and research suggests it can lead to kidney stones and most guides suggest that sufferers of gout and pregnant women avoid it. It is also strongly suggested that it is eaten in moderation due to the oxalic acid content, but given the tiny size of the leaves and flowers it is highly likely that a human forager will become bored before reaching a level of consumption to be concerned about.
The taste is very distinctive, somewhere between apple peel, grape skin and citrus. The word ‘sorrel’ comes from the same word root as ‘sour’, and once tasted it’s easy to see why. Is use it in salads and sandwiches, and to cook alongside (or inside) freshly caught fish.
How to identify Wood Sorrel
Wood Sorrel is easily identified by the three heart-shaped lobes of the leaf, and the overall size and distribution. The leaves appear slightly hairy, and droop significantly after heavy rain/dew. A white bell-shaped flower appears mid-Spring, and can also be identified by thin purple veins running along the petals.
Potential dangers and misidentification
Probably the biggest hazard with Wood Sorrel is over consumption (See above). A possible mis-identification can occur with other varieties within Oxalis which are often found as garden plants. There is also Mountain Wood Sorrel (Oxalis montana) found in North America.