Rumex is a tasty wild plant that only shows its leaves in late winter in the Southwest. I’m speaking today about Rumex hymenosepalus, commonly called wild rhubarb, canaigre, hierba colorada, Arizona dock, tanners dock, or ganagra.
The Whole Plant is Useful
The roots of Rumex hymenosepalus are a good source of tannin, used to tan leather. Indeed, at one point, plants were cultivated in parts of the Southwest and sold to leather mills. The roots also yield a warm, medium brown dye for natural fibers like wool and cotton.
Aside from the roots, the rest of the plant is edible. Use leaves and tender young stems in salads or cook like spinach. Older stalks can be cooked and eaten like rhubarb. Rumex stalk pie – yum! Seeds can be harvested and ground to add to corn meal, or added to stew to thicken it.
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 canaigre, and that it was good to chew on the cane-like stalks as you rode the range.
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.
Rumex Family Ties
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! Many members of the family have edible seeds.
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. There is also Rumex scutatus, called French sorrel or yerba mulata, has been cultivated in this area since the days of Father Kino.
A quick note about the common name sorrel. In the Caribbean “sorrel” refers to Hibiscus sabdariffa, used to make a tea. In other parts of the world, sorrel refers to a members of the genus Oxalis, whose leaves have a tart flavor and are also used in a number of ways. This just highlights 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.
Rumex contains oxalic acid. So does spinach, chard, and amaranth.
Before you freak out about “acid” – we all eat acid all the time. Citrus contains citric acid, apples contain acetic acid, even leafy greens contain acids. Acid is not the issue. The oxalate crystals formed after excessive consumption of oxalic acid are. Remember – all – ALL – foods in moderation.
Editors Note. I am chasing down some references and will post more about oxalic acid on our site under the “Savor Safely” tab on the site menu. Sign up for our newsletter to learn more.
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More cooking and using Southwestern native plants in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies at no additional cost to you.
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