Sheep’s Sorrel is an easily overlooked little plant as its flowers are quite small and the plant itself does not grow very tall. Occasionally if you get a thick concentration of the plants then they can give a rusty red colouration to the scene, but that is about as good as it gets.
The first flowers will appear in March but then it goes on flowering throughout the summer and into the Autumn. As with all the plants in this genus, the leaves are arrow shaped. Culinary buffs will be familiar with a related species called Common sorrel or garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), often simply called sorrel. There is a page dedicated to it on the Waitrose web site so it has to be a ‘foody’ plant. Several years ago I planted some in my garden in France, along with various other plants like mint, thyme and sage. The ‘garden’ area has largely returned to grass and everything has died except for the Sorrel which has not only maintained itself but also set seed and spread into other areas. I do not find it particularly useful, it is a bit too acidic and tangy. The variety I planted was a ‘garden cultivar’ and as such had quite large leaves. However the original ‘wild’ species has much smaller leaves, they are none the less still more chunky than the rather thin and often elongated leaves of Sheep’s Sorrel..
You can also eat the little leaves of Sheep’s Sorrel and they too have a tangy, lemony flavour. A small number in a salad could add a bit of zing to it but if they were not there, then you would manage OK.
This plant is unisexual so all flowers on one plant are either male or female. Female flowers tend to be greenish, male flowers yellowish, the whole plant is generally a reddish-green to brownish is colour.
As you may have surmised from my French garden exploits, this is a perennial plant and has a strong and resilient root stock to carry it through the winter. Even though it is quite a small plant the roots can extend up to 50cm down into the ground.
It is more of a heath-land plant than a woodland species and definitely prefers acidic soils. However I have often seen it growing in woodlands but not in the darkest shady places. Being quite short it does not tolerate too many taller plants so it is often seen in the more exposed regions. It grows in our section of Ninewells wood, which is where the photo above was taken. It is also the food plant for the caterpillar of the Small Copper butterfly which not surprisingly I also get in our wood.
Click to see other flowers from the Wye valley woodlands