When old pastures and unused fields of Illinois take on in miniature the colors of the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert, then spring is over and early summer is on the land. It is now that the sheep sorrel sends up thin, wispy, whip-lash spikes which blossom with tiny flowers and later seeds in shades of yellow, rose, russet, orange, and brown. A field of sheep sorrel is all these colors in an ever-changing pattern of color which is so common that it usually is ignored, yet so beautiful that it may be compared with the rich hues of the ancient and more permanent paint of the Arizona desert.
Rumex acetosella L.
May - June Fields, roadsides.
Sheep sorrel is not an exotic flower. It is neither a rose nor an orchid, but is a member of the Buckwheat family and is akin to smartweeds, docks, and buckwheats. It has a basal cluster of halberd-shaped leaves, dark green and acid of juice, and several flower stems bearing a few small leaves. The flowers bloom with abundant pollen and the seeds form almost at once. The colors cover a wide range of tones of red and yellow and orange, so that the field of sheep sorrel presents that pastel, many-colored effect so typical of this plant.
Like many of the other docks, sheep sorrel is edible, both boiled as greens and as a base for a soup. A small amount of the fresh young leaves makes an unusual seasoning for potatoes, rice, fish, or as an ingredient in a mixed salad.
When eaten raw, sheep sorrel should be taken in small quantities because of the presence of potassium oxalate in the leaves. When boiled the acid is reduced to harmlessness. In France the sorrel is planted in boxes in basements, kept dark, and the pale leaves used as a delectable item in salads.