Wood Sorrel

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The region of South Africa receiving winter rainfall (‘the Cape’) is an area with exceptional plant biodiversity and a high degree of endemism. It contains many edible species which were historically foraged rather than cultivated. However, from 1650 onward, settlers introduced fruit and vegetable culitvars, which over time have come to form the basis of modern agriculture and cuisine throughout the country. The culture of foraging for and use of Cape wild foods has now almost completely been displaced, resulting in significant loss of knowledge.

There is however a growing group of chefs, food innovators, foragers, gardeners, community farmers and local knowledge holders who are re-kindling an interest in the culinary use of Cape wild food plants. Though current access to ingredients is mostly limited to foraging – plants growing in the wild or in urban environments – there is interest in developing a culture of cultivation.

Wood sorrel (Oxalis pes-caprae), also said yellow sorrel, wild sorrel, geelsuring, langbeensuring, klawersuring, is a seasonal herbaceous perennial and endemic plant. It is possible to found it growing in the wild, as well as along verges and in fields. It is widespread and common during the winter growing season, from Namaqualand to the Eastern Cape. The leaves resemble clover, with three leaflets and succulent stems. Clusters of 3 to 20 bright yellow flowers are carried on long stems. It is treated as a weed by many gardeners and farmers. There are over 500 species of Oxalis in South Africa – of which several are edible – different species would have been used by people in different regions.

The sharp sour taste of the leaves and stems of wood sorrel make it a useful local substitute for lemon. It can be added to soups, stews, sauces and as an ingredient for “pesto”. Leaves and flowers also add a fresh zing to salads. Children in particular love to chew on the sour juicy stems, hence the local name “suring” (meaning sour). It is high in oxalic acid, so should not be used in excess.

The Khoi, the San, and more recently the Boer settlers used wood sorrel extensively as a flavourant, adding it to soups, meat or vegetable stews (locally known as “bredies”). Historically the Khoi people of the Cape used wood sorrel and goat/sheep’s milk to make a kind of porridge.

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Spices, wild herbs and condiments

Indigenous community:Khoi and San
Nominated by:Marijke Honig