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Of the two kinds of Sorrel cultivated for use as vegetables or salads, Rumex acetosa, the Garden Sorrel, is an indigenous English plant, common, too in the greater part of Europe, in almost all soils and situations.
It grows abundantly in meadows, a slender plant about 2 feet high, with juicy stems and leaves, and whorled spikes of reddish-green flowers, which give colour, during the months of June and July, to the grassy spots in which it grows. It is generally found in pastures where the soil contains iron.
The leaves are oblong, the lower ones 3 to 6 inches in length, slightly arrow-shaped at the base, with very long petioles. The upper ones are sessile. They frequently become a beautiful crimson.
As the flowers increase in size, they become a purplish colour. The stamens and pistils are on different plants. The seeds, when ripe, are brown and shining. The perennial roots run deeply into the ground. Sorrel is well known for the grateful acidity of its herbage, which is most marked when the plant is in full season, though in early spring it is almost tasteless. The leaves contain a considerable quantity of binoxalate of potash, which gives them their acid flavour and medicinal and dietetic properties.
They have been employed from the most distant time as a salad. In the time of Henry VIII, this plant was held in great repute in England, for table use, but after the introduction of French Sorrel, with large succulent leaves, it gradually lost its position as a salad and a potherb, and for many years it has ceased to be cultivated.
Together with salt, it gives both the name and the relish to sallets from the sapidity, which renders not plants and herbs only, but men themselves pleasant and agreeable. For it resists the putrefaction of the blood, kills worms, and is a cordial to the heart, which the seed doth more effectually, being more drying and binding Both roots and seeds, as well as the herb, are held powerful to resist the poison of the scorpion. The leaves, wrapt in a colewort leaf and roasted in the embers, and applied to a large imposthume, botch boil, or plague-sore, doth both ripen and break it.
The distilled water of the herb is of much good use for all the purposes aforesaid. Our country people used to beat the herb to a mash and take it mixed with vinegar and sugar, as a green sauce with cold meat, hence one of its popular names: Because of their acidity, the leaves, treated as spinach, make a capital dressing with stewed lamb, veal or sweetbread.
A few of the leaves may also with advantage be added to turnips and spinach. When boiled by itself, without water, it serves as an excellent accompaniment to roast goose or pork, instead of apple sauce. Simmer it as slow as you can, and when done enough, put a bit of butter and beat it well.
In Scandinavia, Sorrel has sometimes been used in time of scarcity to put into bread. The leaves contain a little starch and mucilage, and the root is rather farinaceous. The juice of the leaves will curdle milk as well as rennet, and the Laplanders use it as a substitute for the latter. The dried root affords a beautiful red colour when boiled and used for making barley water look like red wine, when in France they wish to avoid giving anything of a vinous nature to the sick.
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Garden Sorrel likes a damp situation, French Sorrel a dry soil and an open situation. The finest plants are propagated from seed, sown in March, though it may be sown in any of the spring months. Sow moderately thin, in drills 6 inches apart, and thin out when the plants are 1 or 2 inches high.
When the stalks run up in July, they should be cut back. The roots will then put out new leaves, which will be tender and better for kitchen use than the older leaves, so that by cutting down the shoots of some plants at different times, there will always be a supply of young leaves.
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Both varieties are generally increased by dividing the roots, which may be done either in spring or autumn, the roots being planted about a foot apart each way, and watered. It is corrective of scrofulous deposits: Sorrel is especially beneficial in scurvy. Both the root and the seed were formerly esteemed for their astringent properties, and were employed to stem haemorrhage.
A syrup made with the juice of Fumitory and Sorrel had the reputation of curing the itch, and the juice, with a little vinegar, was considered a cure for ringworm, and recommended as a gargle for sore throat. A decoction of the flowers, made with wine, was said to cure jaundice and ulcerated bowels, the root in decoction or powder being also employed for jaundice, and gravel and stone in the kidneys.
Sorrell doth undoubtedly cool and mightily dry, but because it is sour, it likewise cutteth tough humours. The juice thereof in summer time is a profitable sauce in many meats and pleasant to the taste.
It cooleth a hot stomach. The leaves are with good success added to decoctions, and are used in agues. The leaves are taken in good quantity, stamped and stained into some ale and cooleth the body.
The leaves are eaten in a tart spinach. The seed of Sorrell drunk in wine stoppeth the bloody flow.