sheep sorrel – One of various plants having a sour juice;– especially applied to plants of the genus Rumex, as Rumex acetosa, Rumex acetosella, &c. — Webster, 1882
woodsorrel – A plant of the genus Oxalis (O. acetellosa), having an acid taste. — Webster, 1882
“Sheep sorrel tastes like springtime,” Laura said. – Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 2, “Springtime on the Claim”
Sheep sorrel / sheep-sorrel. Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetellosa) is also known as red sorrel, sour weed, and field sorrel. It is a perennial and noxious weed native to Europe and Asia which was introduced to North America’s prairie, where it invaded hay and pasture fields and crowded out native species. it also competed with winter wheat, and only the most persistent harrowing of the ground before seeding could hold it in check until the wheat sprouted. Its greatest damage was done in sandy soil, such as was found on the hill on the west of the Ingallses’ homestead.
It grows from six inches to about a foot in height, having narrow sharp-pointed or arrow-shaped leaves and spikes of green flowers with reddish veins, and red flowers which bloom in the spring. Sheep sorrel is hard to control due to its spreading rhizomes, and can be found in dry soils of grasslands and pastures, although it thrives in moist soil.
As Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 2, “Springtime on the Claim”), the leaves and stems of sheep sorrel have a tangy, lemony, tart taste. The leaves and flowers can be used as a garnish. As a medicine, sheep sorrel can be used to prevent scurvy, causes perspiration, and is a diuretic.
Woodsorrel / wood-sorrel. Sheep sorrel belongs to the buckwheat family, and can claim no relationship to woodsorrel, which is a type of geranium. Woodsorrel (Oxalis acetosella and other species with variously colored flowers) is a small plant of the cold northern forests, found usually near dry leaves or moss from which they spring. The flowers, with five petals, appear from May to July. They lack both odor and nectar. Although Wilder describes them in Farmer Boy (see Chapter 15, “Cold Snap”) as being lavender in color, the flowers of O. acetosella are usually white with a touch of blue or purple. It is most likely that what Almanzo picked was O. montana, or mountain woodsorrel, which has purple blossoms and is both native to New York and found in Franklin County.
Woodsorrel is a perennial, growing from 2-6 inches in height. Leaves have three heart-shaped leaflets and close at night, during changes in the atmosphere, or when touched. The half-inch flowers appear on long stems. Called fairy bells by the Welch, Laura Ingalls Wilder could have written one of her “fairy poems” about woodsorrel, as the “ringing of the fairy bells called the elves to dance their moonlight dance.” The original shamrock of the Irish was Oxalis: woodsorrel with its three heart-shaped leaflets.
The stems and leaves of woodsorrel are sour due to oxalic acid and potassium oxalate. The leave were used to make a tea which helped reduce fever or as a lotion for skin infections. Oxalic acid is slightly toxic, so woodsorrel should not be eaten in large amounts. Oxalic acid can bind the body’s supply of calcium and lead to a deficiency.
sorrel (BPC 16)
sheep sorrel / sheep-sorrel (SSL 29; LTP 2)
woodsorrel (FB 15)