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The Rumex Cube

12th December 2017
by Jane Carswell in Know Your Plants, Our Foraging.

It was only recently that I discovered you could eat dock. My way in was through the stems. 

That's dock, Rumex crispus the curly leaved variety and Rumex obtusifolius, the broad leaved variety. Both varieties are currently adding to the ruin of my not-very-well-kept lawn; like many weeds, they are infuriatingly well-constructed plants - hard to uproot and equipped with so many seeds per plant that your chances of eradicating it are slim to impossible.

So I'm getting set to embrace them, because the speckled stalks are succulent and sour and delicious, with hints of damson and rhubarb. I juiced them and the results were pleasantly pink. Mixed with currants, cooked a little sous vide and blitzed, it was a very successful and supremely local substitute for bottled lemon juice in a cocktail [See The Ogilvie >]. 

The rhubarb flavour profile is no coincidence, as it turns out that rhubarb is a member of the same larger plant family, the buckwheat family, Polygonaceae. The buckwheat connection then led me onto my next discovery, a use for the seeds, ground, to make crackers. I see online that there are also recipes available for wafers, pancakes and bread, usually using ground dock seeds in cahoots with another type of flour.

Wikipedia call buckwheat a ‘pseudocereal’ because it’s actually not a grass at all. It’s seeds are rich in complex carbohydrate, gluten free, full of minerals like magnesium and B vitamins, and it has a really short growing season of 10 - 12 weeks. This means that, like a cereal, it is raised as a crop on a substantial scale in Russia, China, the US, Brazil, Tanzania, and others. I can’t find anywhere a full nutritional analysis of dock seeds, although their fibre content was in evidence in the crackers that I tried - possibly because the small seeds are a bastard to winnow! I’m happy to conclude that they are in the same region nutritionally, knowing the family connection and seeing that they share with buckwheat seeds a characteristic look, like little pyramids after being detached from the leafy plate that sits underneath the seed.  

(I’ve read that the seeds can be sort of malted before grinding into flour, i.e. sprouted then dehydrated, which I’d like to try as it seems that would only boost the flavour and nutritional value. Roll on next year…)

The spire-like structure of the seedheads, reaching two or three foot above the main splat of leaves, introduced another connection between dock and a tasty plant that I often seek, sheep sorrel - so called locally because it is common in grasslands and our ovine friends have been quietly enjoying it for centuries!

In seed, sheeps sorrel is more delicate and more colourful than dock, red or coral rather than rusty brown, but at a distance you could mix them up. This sorrel’s latin name turns out to be Rumex acetosella - a close relation from the same genus of the same buckwheat family. The enjoyable sourness of the sorrel leaves and of the dock stems that I had been seeking for use in the kitchen and bar, is down to the oxalic acid present in both plants. (However, "wood sorrel", also rich in oxalic acid, is unrelated. It comes from a small separate family named after the tangy stuff, Oxalidaceae, the wood sorrel family.)

Another member of the buckwheat clan is the notoriously invasive Japanese knotweed, which also just so happens to be delicious. [See Drinks Uses of Japanese Knotweed >]

So my haphazard experience on the ground as a rookie forager - seeing things, seeking things, checking things, working by taste - has seemingly put me in touch with a wider and more logical system of navigating a world of unexpected wild flavours. For ingredient-explorers, or curious weeders, plant families might just be an extremely useful key.

Further Reading 

More about the two docks, curly and broad-leafed, from The Spruce >

More about edibility, mainly of dock leaves >

Meet the Brassica Family, with forager John Renston >



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