Dr. Jacqueline Soule, the Fourth Friday Savor Sister here to talk today about an edible “weed” you might find in your yard this winter.
One of the wonderful aspects of living in Southern Arizona is our milder winter weather – and it has been milder than most this year. In my corner of Tucson it has not even hit freezing yet (a fact that is good and bad news for gardeners with fruit trees, but more about “chill hours” some other day). This mild winter weather has lead to the early appearance of a number of cool season/winter weeds. Note that it is a good idea to get rid of most weeds before they go to seed, unless they are edible weeds, in which case you may want to harvest some and leave the rest to seed freely for future harvests.
One local winter plant often considered a weed was once grown here commercially. I am talking about Rumex hymenosepalus, commonly called wild rhubarb, canaigre, hierba colorada, Arizona dock, Arizona rhubarb, tanners dock, or ganagra. Back when my age was in the single digits, I learned to call it “miners lettuce.”
Growing up at the edge of Tucson, cowboys were part of our circle of friends. “Mr. Alex” was very patient with my countless plant questions, and told me the name for the plant was miners lettuce. With one of his slow smiles he explained that no self respecting cowboy would eat the plant, but because most miners were poorer than dirt, they commonly ate the plant. Five decades later I realize he was also explaining to my brother that most prospectors never found their gold mine, and were commonly strapped for cash, but a steadily working cowboy never lacked for food to eat.
Rumex hymenosepalus was once cultivated in the southwestern United States for the roots, a good source of tannin, used for tanning leather. The roots also yield a warm, medium brown dye for natural fibers like wool and cotton. But when it comes to savoring – the leaves and leaf stalks are considered edible when young. Use leaves and tender young stems in salads or cook like spinach. Older stalks can be cooked and eaten like rhubarb. Rumex pie – yum!
Rumex hymenosepalus is generally found in grasslands, like the Tucson valley used to be. Now you can find it on the eastern and southern edges of Tucson around Vail and Sahuarita, as well as other southern Arizona grassland areas. It is also found in other western states, including California, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma.
Although the leaves appear after the winter rains, the plant is a perennial in the buckwheat family, the Polygonaceae. You may have guessed by the common name, but this plant family also includes rhubarb, another perennial whose leaf stalks are (IMHO) yummy!
Various other species of Rumex are commonly cultivated as garden vegetables. Rumex acetosa, often simply called sorrel, common sorrel, garden sorrel, spinach dock and narrow-leaved dock. Rumex scutatus, called French sorrel or yerba mulata, has been cultivated in this area since the days of Father Kino (in this area 1687 to 1711). I just purchased some nursery seedlings of French sorrel at a local independent nursery and planted them in my garden.
A quick note about the common name sorrel. In the Caribbean “sorrel” refers to Hibiscus sabdariffa, used to make a tea. In other areas sorrel refers to a members of the genus Oxalis, whose leaves have a tart flavor and are used in a number of ways. This just serves to highlight the reason I rely on scientific names when discussing plants that may be harvested in the wild. You want to be certain of your identification.
If you like to harvest your own, or prefer to cultivate your food, I hope you will consider adding this member of the buckwheat family to your list of plants to savor. Go Rumex!
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