Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Foraging Wood Sorrel and Some Traditional Foods vs Science Controversy

A bunch of wood sorrel plants
As kids, we used to call this plant either "lemon" or "clover" (neither of them correct), depending on our mood. It was the first wild edible I ever learned to identify- I remember picking it in our backyard as young as 4 or 5 years old and popping it into my mouth to munch on. Locally, the name for this plant is the same as the name of a chewy sour candy.
With all these variations in name, its no surprise that I only found out its official name, wood sorrel, once I was an adult.

Wood sorrel is actually a whole range of plants in the oxalis family, all edible, and with common traits that make it very easy to identify. In addition to the ease in identifying, wood sorrel is pretty widespread and grows on every continent (other than Antarctica, obviously), making it a terrific first foraged food for beginners.

Wood sorrel's main identification is via its leaves. All heart shaped and with a crease in the middle, these leaves grow in groups of three from the top of each stalk. Yes, like a shamrock/three leaf clover/symbol of Ireland. Wood sorrel is actually known as a false shamrock. (Three leaf clovers also have 3 leaves at the top of each stem, but their leaves are oval and not heart shaped.)
If you've got 3 heart shaped leaves growing together, you've got wood sorrel- simple as that!

Each species of wood sorrel look slightly different. Some have light green leaves, some have dark green leaves, some have purple leaves. Our local wood sorrel is green with black/purple flecks on the leaves.
Often wood sorrel's groups of 3 leaves lie flat like a shamrock, allowing you to see all 3 leaves at one time, but our local ones are folded over on themselves so you can only really see 2 leaves at a time.

All the parts of the plant are edible, including leaves, stems, and flowers. Wood sorrel's flowers each have 5 petals, and they can range in color from white to yellow to pink to purple (or some combinations of the above). Our local wood sorrel has yellow flowers.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Wood sorrel has a fleshy stem, which releases liquid into your mouth when chewed. In previous times, indigenous people would use wood sorrel to keep hydrated while on journeys for this reason.

Here's some more pictures of some local wood sorrel, including closeups of its stems, roots, and bulbs.

Culinary Use

Wood sorrel has a pleasant lemony taste, and is rich in vitamin C, and can be used to add tartness in many recipes, adding a nice bit of lemon flavor to the food. My favorite use of wood sorrel in food preparation so far has been chopped up and served together with avocado, salt, and garlic. It tasted very reminiscent of guacamole.

I've also used wood sorrel in place of an unrelated plant with a similar name, common sorrel (rumex acetosa), to make a traditional Polish cold sorrel soup called schav, and it tasted terrific.

Its great in salads, for making into tea, for chilling and making a mock lemonade.

My next plan is to use wood sorrel to make a variation of the classic Greek soup, Avgolemono, egg-lemon soup, only with the wood sorrel being used in place of the lemon.

Safety Note

Although this plant has no toxic look alikes, wood sorrel contains oxalic acid, which can be dangerous if you have any kidney issues, as it may cause a toxic buildup in the kidneys. Some people warn about eating wood sorrel because of its oxalic acid, which can be somewhat toxic if eaten in excess, but its controversial.
Spinach, broccoli, rhubarb, tea, cocoa, and starfruit all contain large amounts of oxalic acid, and you don't hear people warning you not to eat them because of the "danger of oxalic acid".
See here for some information about why the warnings on the danger of consuming excess wood sorrel may be unfounded. I also read that a certain food safety organization (don't remember which or where I read it, even though it was just an hour ago, despite my trying to find it again!) said that as long as you're eating wood sorrel as part of a well rounded diet, and not living exclusively off of that, there is no danger whatsoever in eating it (unless you're on dialysis or have other known kidney issues such as a propensity to kidney stones!)
Consumption of too much oxalic acid can hinder absorption of calcium and other minerals, so if you are very mineral deficient, eating this plant frequently can cause problems, but even then, once in a blue moon shouldn't be a problem at all.

Personally, how do I feel about eating wood sorrel and safety?
Well, I'm a traditional foodie. I believe that our ancestors intuitively knew best which foods nourish the body best and how to prepare them, and that foods eaten for millenia can't possibly be dangerous for you, and are actually the ideal types of foods to eat, even if some modern studies may show them to be unhealthy. (This  is why I eat butter, chicken fat, and coconut oil , even if today's conventional medicine says they're bad for you. Some more posts I've written with my thoughts about traditional food diets- My thoughts on gluten, my thoughts on Paleo diets, and my thoughts on vegan diets.)
Wood sorrel (oxalis) and common sorrel (rumex acetosa), both filled with oxalic acid, were traditionally eaten by many cultures around the world. Schav, the sorrel soup I wrote about above, is actually a traditional food eaten by my great grandparents in Poland and the general area (I remember my grandparents fondly talking about eating schav), even though its "dangerous according to the books" because of its oxalic acid. When it comes to food safety, I actually have very little trust in what conventional medicine and science has to say, and instead go with what my great grandparents and their ancestors did.

Therefore, I'm not in the least bit concerned about the oxalic acid content in wood sorrel and feel comfortable recommending it as a foraged edible on my traditional food eating blog.
Controversial, I know; I did my part gave the official warning so you can make up your mind, but also wanted to explain why I am not concerned at all and have no problem suggesting it to you to eat. You'll have to make up your own mind on this issue.

So, what do you think? Have you ever seen wood sorrel growing? Have you ever eaten it? Do you think these pictures and description will help you to identify it easily?
How do you feel about eating certain foods when conventional medicine and modern science says that they're dangerous but your ancestors traditionally ate those foods? Would you eat those traditional foods or rely on the knowledge we have today and dub those traditional foods as dangerous?
If you're a traditional foodie like I am (like other Weston Price/Nourishing Traditions followers), how would you feel about eating this plant, knowing that its a traditional food eaten around the globe, that "the books" say can be toxic if eaten in excess?

Linking up to Real Food Wednesday, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Simple Lives Thursday, Frugal Friday, Fight Back Friday, Fresh Bites Friday, Wellness Weekend


  1. I just found out about this plant I love it and I love your level headed approach

  2. Just today, I made wood sorrel soup with a friend and 5 kids aged 10-6 years old. They foraged for with us - so even the picky eaters were eager to try it. It was such a hit, they went in the yard for more so I could make more soup!

  3. I ate this as a kid all the time along with many types of berries, growing up in the Mt. St. Helens area of WA. Never had any issues with my kidneys or anything else for that matter. Loved them for their bitter taste. We sucked the nectar out of the clover flowers for desert. :)

  4. I stumbled on your blog while looking up some plants in my overgrown backyard. So very helpful!

    I'm with you and the ancestors on the foraged greens... Ever notice how "my be toxic if consumed in excess" is super common in foraging guides/pages, but the word "excess" is never actually defined? I believe a well varied diet with not only prevent this ominous "excess" but also prevent a boring palate.

  5. How does wood sorrel tea taste?

    1. Absolutely amazing! Sweteen it with some Agave Nectar, chill it in the fridge, and you'll never be the same, craving it OFTEN.

  6. Tastes great mashed with strawberries

  7. René Redzepi serves his tartare with wood sorrel at NOMA, one of the worlds best restaurants - absolutely fantastic (both the dish and the restaurant). Brought back loads of childhood memories, especially as the dish was to be eaten by hand. You can find the recipe for his tartare here:

  8. thank you so much for this page! I foraged a bunch of wood sorrel yesterday and made your avocado recipe last night... delicious!!!! thank you for the recipe - I never would have thought of it. Today I made a spinach and chicken salad with wood sorrel mixed in, also delicious.


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