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Curly Dock: A Plant for Year-Round Sustenance

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Curly dock plants displaying their voluminous seedheads.

Curly dock (Rumex crispus, also called yellow dock) is one of those plants that is easily overlooked. It doesn’t have a showy flower and the leaves can look kind of generic. Furthermore, it’s not typically as prolific of a weed as dandelion— at least not in urban areas. It’s unfortunate that people aren’t more familiar with it, as the leaves, stem, seed, and root are all edible or medicinal. And with its wide distribution, it’s easy to start eating!

Habitat and Distribution

Curly dock isn’t too discerning about its habitat, growing in full sun and part shade, fields, roadsides, trailsides, and other open areas. Native to Europe, it has been introduced to all fifty states in the US and all Canadian provinces except Nunavut.

Identification

The leaves of curly dock are hairless, long and narrow, and often have wavy or curly edges—which is where it gets its common name. The plant has both basal leaves and leaves on the stem, which are alternate. Basal leaves can be as long as 12 inches and around 2 ½ inches wide; the leaves become smaller as they ascend the stem. A thin whitish sheath grows around the node (where the petiole and stalk meet.) This sheath become brown and papery with time, and eventually disintegrates. The main stem is ribbed, stout, and mostly unbranched. The plant can reach heights of one to five feet at maturity.

Flowers grow in branching clusters at the top of the plant, in groups of 10 to 25. Despite this large quantity, they are rather inconspicuous because they are small and greenish (though they can also be yellowish or pinkish.) They appear in whorls, meaning that they grow all the way around a single point on the stem.

Seeds appear in late summer and fall. They are three-sided, oval to egg-shaped, with a sharp point on one end. The seeds are encased in a leaf-like capsule that turns brown and papery with age. These seeds are the best way to identify curly dock in winter, as they often remain on the dead stalk until spring. (See below for close-up pictures of the seeds.) If you are unfamiliar with curly dock, I don’t recommend immediately picking a dead winter stalk for the seeds. Instead, practice positively identifying the plant during the growing season. Then observe the plant as it ages through the fall and winter, and then start picking the dead winter stalks. I believe that this is best way to learn to identify plants in winter.

Similar Species

Broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius)

Many species of dock (Rumex spp.) grow in the United States and Canada. Besides curly dock, broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) is the main species that’s eaten. This dock has large, broad heart-shaped leaves, unlike the long, narrow leaves of curly dock. The leaves, stem, and seeds of broad-leaved dock can be eaten like those of curly dock, but the root does not have the same medicinal qualities. Broad-leaved dock can be found in all 50 US states except Nevada, Wyoming, and North Dakota. In Canada, it grows in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia.

Western dock (R. occidentalis), dooryard dock (R. longifolius), field dock (R. stenphyllus), wild rhubarb (R. hymenosepalus) and patience dock (R. patientia) are all edible as well. As far as I know, there are no poisonous species of dock, though some are considered inedible due to unpalatability.

Harvest and Preparation

The creases along this dock leaf is a sign that it unfurled recently and is therefore likely tender and delicious.

Leaves and Stem

Start looking for dock leaves in early spring. Typically the sooner you get them, the more sweet and tender they are, but this depends on growing conditions. I used to hate dock, and could not for the life of me understand how people could compare it to spinach. Then I found a beautiful stand of it growing in an open pine forest. The leaves were large, light green, and supple; and they tasted just like spinach! No, better, even—the sour, lemony aspect was much more pronounced. I didn’t like all the previous dock leaves I had eaten because they were stressed out and stunted from growing in poor, gravelly soils. This is why with foraging it’s important to try species from varying locations!

Regardless, dock leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. When the plant sends up a stem, the basal leaves generally become too tough and bitter to eat, but those on the stem may be palatable. However, the best portion is the stem itself! Harvest dock stems in late spring and early summer, before it reaches full height and any flowers appear. It should feel supple and bendy; if not, it’s probably too tough to eat. The outer layer may be stringy, but this can be peeled before eating. If it’s tender enough, eat it raw; otherwise it’s delicious steamed or sautéed. You could even pickle it! The flavor is similar to the leaves, except more “green” tasting—something like green beans.

Dock leaves and stems contain oxalic acid, which is what gives them their yummy sour flavor. However, this does require a note of caution, as oxalic acid prevents the assimilation of minerals such as calcium and iron. But this compound is also found in many cultivated plants, including rhubarb, spinach, and Swiss chard. While one often reads warnings about oxalic acid in wild food literature, one rarely hears warnings about eating those domesticated foods. I believe that this is due to an unfair bias against wild foods. As long as you’re not severely mineral deficient, and as long as you’re not consuming unreasonably massive amounts of foods containing oxalic acid, you’ll be fine!

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Sunday – January 18, 2009

From: Las Vegas, NV
Region: Rocky Mountain
Topic: Non-Natives, Soils, Trees
Title: How soon after stump grinding can something else be planted?
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:
ANSWER:

Actually, from personal experience, the soil around a recently ground stump is very good. Those small chips of wood left in the soil, as they decompose, make a good organic amendment to the soil. You will need to fill in the hole left by the removal of the stump with good dirt. When we say “good”, we mean dirt that hopefully is not full of weed seeds, so don’t just go out in the field and dig some up. If it’s not too huge a hole, you might even consider using sterile potting soil, mixing the potting soil, native soil and wood chips together, and watering. Although you could probably plant there immediately, it wouldn’t hurt to let it rest for a month or so, meanwhile watching to make sure no sprouts from the mulberry roots pop up. In an effort to survive, the tree roots left behind by the grinder may start putting out adventitious sprouts. Cut them off or pull them off as they pop up, and finally the roots will run out of stored nutrients and give up. Those roots, too, will eventually decompose in the soil; keeping the soil moist will help to speed up that decomposition.

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