The genus Rumex is giving me a headache. Damn docks! Why are there so many of you? According to Wikipedia, there are about 200 plants in the genus Rumex—which I guess explains why I’ve been having so much trouble identifying them correctly!
Not to get to deep in the muddle that docks made my brain into, but yesterday I unpublished my two dock entries (one at etmarciniec.com and one here at Wild Food Girl) after a reading of Thayer (2010) followed by more online research revealed some amount of confusion on my part over which docks I was eating and by what common and scientific names they are called.
Below is an attempt to clarify:
The Docks I Eat, See, and Dream About
Over the last two years I have been eating two different varieties of dock in and around Park County, Colorado. One has large, wide leaves and grows in moist places. After a number of unsuccessful culinary experiments where I generally erred by collecting leaves that were much too mature to be palatable, this spring I’ve found (per Thayer’s recommendation) that collecting the young leaves prior to or during their slimy unfurling yields much better food. So far I’ve prepared them by chopping the leaves and petioles (leaf stalks) into thin horizontal slices and then sauteéing them, with decent results.
All docks are considered to be edible though varying in palatability, Thayer (2010) tells us, so beyond knowing whether or not you’ve found a dock (please refer to a guidebook), exact identification is not necessarily of utmost concern in this case. That being said, I’d like to be at least close to the mark. Here are some docks that have large leaves like the ones I’ve been eating:
- Western dock – Rumex occidentalis – According to Kathryn G. and Andrew L March, whose guide (1979) pertains to Colorado plants, western dock grows in wet places, has big broad leaves, and “makes an excellent cooked green.”
- Broad-leafed or bitter dock – Rumex obtusifolius – This dock also has big leaves but is often less desirable for consumption on account of the fact that it can be bitter, as the name implies.
- Patience dock – Rumex patientia – Thayer opines that patience dock, or simply “patience,” which can be found sporadically as an escaped garden vegetable, is the best dock, the crème de la crème as it were. “No red spots here!” he writes, the red being an indicator of bitterness.
- Curly dock – Rumex crispus – The edges of the leaves have wavy curls or crinkles, hence the descriptor, “curly.” Some curly dock has large, wide leaves, like what I’ve been eating. But I’ve also seen curly dock with narrower leaves. (Incidentally, the March’s like curly dock best.)
I had originally identified my large-leafed dock as western dock, describing it in the now-unpublished entry, “Dock Taste Test,” as “broad-leafed.” Not until my reading of Thayer, however, did I realize that a specific plant (R. obtusifolius) has “broad-leafed” as its common name, rendering my descriptor confusing, to say the least. Then I wondered if I’d found patience dock, on account of how tasty my recent dock experiments have been—until I spied the red accents on the older petioles.
After much thought and frustration over the matter, I am now leaning towards my initial identification of the large-leafed dock I’ve been eating as western dock (R. occidentalis)—but as you can see, this is still a tentative identification.
The other Park County, Colorado dock I ate on several occasions last summer has narrow, willowy leaves and grows in and among humans very well—the consummate weed, you might say. I found it growing under the bench in the Fairplay skate park, on the sides of the roads at the end of Route 14, and in the middle of a well-trafficked walk up to Arapahoe Basin ski area in late spring this year.
I believe it to be willow dock, which as you can see below is a common name with which Thayer and the March’s each associate different scientific names. So, you tell me—is it the same plant with two different scientific names, or two different plants with the same common name?
- Willow dock – Rumex triangulivalvis (Thayer) and/or Rumex salicifolius (March’s) – The leaves are long and thin, looking somewhat like the leaves of some varieties of willow. “Its flower stalks have the habit of branching at the nodes, giving the plant a spreading look,” Thayer writes.
Oxalates in Rumex
Dock is not the only Rumex. Lemony sheep sorrels fall into this genus too. Much of the Rumex genus contains oxalic acid, over-consumption of which can cause a person to get sick, which probably explains why some sources refer to this plant as “poisonous” (for example, a Wikipedia entry on bitter dock in which the “poison” claim is uncited). As Arthur Lee Jacobson explains it: “Docks, like sorrels, spinach, beets, chard and rhubarb, contain oxalic acid that is potentially harmful in quantity.” For this reason, it is best to eat dock (or any of the above named plants) as a side dish or an ingredient in a dish, as opposed to gorging oneself to the gills on it.
Honestly, docks have given me a hard time, and not just in their identification!
My first culinary experience with boiled late season leaves caused Gregg to conclude that they were slimy and gross—and I only made it worse by trying to turn it into saag paneer with a pre-packaged mix.
My second experience was slightly better—I conducted a taste test between my narrow-leafed and my large-leafed varieties, but still finding both to be somewhat tough and mediocre-tasting.
In his online entry on dock, author Arthur Lee Jacobson has this to say: “After six and a half years of weed writing, I finally give Dock its due. … the long delay was because I’ve tried repeatedly to enjoy and cherish Dock, but have failed.”
So, I wasn’t alone in my struggles.
Recently, however, I’ve had more successes. The key is in the young part, I am coming to realize more and more. Harvesting the leaves when they are young, either the new leaves of spring or the youngest leaves in the center of the plant later on, seems to render much more palatable results than eating old, tough dock.
In the past I had boiled my dock findings, but this time I sautéed the sliced leaves and petioles in oil—making stir fry two times and scrambled dock and eggs once—and they both came out pretty good. I also like the whorled shapes the sliced young (large-leafed) dock takes on prior to frying.
My Dock Patch
My (large-leafed) dock patch lies on a seldom trod private road, on the hillside over a drainage tunnel somewhere between Fairplay and Breckenridge. I don’t think I’m supposed to be foraging there—but it’s a weed, after all, so who’s going to miss it?
Barring unforeseen weeding by the owners or foraging prevention on said road, then, you can expect more reports on dock experimentation throughout the summer here at Wild Food Girl, especially now that I’ve gotten this humbug of a misidentification snafu at least partially resolved.
And thanks for your patience on this one.
UPDATE 4.9.13: I know more now than I knew when I wrote this entry, but I didn’t want to remove the story of my early dock journey from this post. However I did reorganize it a little so as not to be so confusing as before. Earlier I had thought of curly dock as having narrow leaves. It can have narrow leaves–but it can also have broad leaves too. So I changed this entry around a little to reflect that.