I was delighted to discover yesterday that what I had thought was a pretty sort of clover growing in a shady flower bed next to my house (and which I very fortunately left unmolested for some odd reason – perhaps whimsy, perhaps respect for the bumble bees, perhaps laziness) is in fact not clover at all, but a tasty tasty treat called wood sorrel.
I have, in the past, eaten, purchased, and even grown a completely different plant, also named sorrel, with rather spinach-y looking leaves. To differentiate the two, the sorrel that has delightfully chosen to grow right next to my house is called “wood sorrel”. Like the other sorrel, it has a lemony taste, but I find it to be slightly less acidic and all together more interesting.
My daughter and I gobbled a few tart, delicious leaves right away while we knelt in the dirt. I gathered a few extras, leaving plenty to self-propagate in the garden, and strewed them on the salmon burgers we had for dinner. There they were in their element – sort of like a combination of salad and pickles all at once.
As it turns out, it seems that pairing wood sorrel and salmon has a long history in Ireland. The recipes I have encountered for it tend to feature salmon served with a sauce featuring wood sorrel cooked up with butter and heavy cream. I am thinking this might be the perfect dinner party dish to come out to my friends as a forager. I could pass the dinner off as a sort of tribute to my heritage, as opposed to a dinner consisting of me finding something weird in the weeds that could be gross or covered in dog pee or poisonous and making them eat it.
So… hey, speaking of poisonous, I should probably mention that, in my browsing of online sites about foraging, I have encountered a few warnings about wood sorrel that suggest it should not be eaten because of its high levels of oxalic acid. So why did I eat it, let my daughter eat it, and consider feeding it to guests? Well, mostly because the whole oxalic acid thing is overblown and dependent on rumour rather than science. I mean, oxalic acid is present in high-ish quantities in spinach, parsley, and chives, and I don’t see anyone stepping away from the spanakopita, tabbouleh, or sour cream and chive potato chips.
Because I am pedantic – I can’t help it, I just am – I did my best to find out what the deal is with oxalic acid. I discovered that there is a whole heap of confusion out there, and, were I a food scientist or a toxicologist, an interesting research topic. I can certainly understand that even the whiff of toxicity is enough to make anyone with a blog continue to place a warning stamp on a plant. I mean, it must seem as if the two possible outcomes from eating wood sorrel are so uneven: in the best scenario, in which the plant is not toxic, you have a nice salad; in the worst scenario, in which the plant is toxic, you and your loved ones, for whom you prepared dinner, die.
In the case of wood sorrel, however, the presence of oxalic acid is absolutely insufficient to produce any dire consequences. It was a traditional food of the First Nations people, and, as I mentioned previously, the Irish. It grows around the world, and has been eaten, and turned into tea and drunk, for millennia. It’s good for you – it contains fairly high levels of vitamin C. Like many other vegetables (e.g. spinach) that contain oxalic acid, wood sorrel would need to be ingested in brobdingnagian proportions in order to be toxic. And if you are eating 20 lbs of wood sorrel in one sitting, I suspect you may have other issues that could also be contributing to your untimely demise.
Now, don’t go eating rhubarb leaves, however. Although they are the poster child for why oxalic acid is toxic, apparently their toxicity is likely due to other compounds present in the leaves, rather than just the oxalic acid alone. So – they probably are kind of toxic, even if the oxalic acid is not necessarily to blame. And I, for one, am not in such desperate need of a salad that I would tempt fate with rhubarb leaves. I will stick to my wood sorrel.