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Curly Dock

Broad Dock

Curly Dock; Rumex crispus L.
Broad Dock; Rumex obtusifolius L.
Buckwheat Family; POLYGONACEÆ

    After six and a half years of weed writing, I finally give Dock its due. "About time," you may mutter? It is more than about time; few weeds are so common. But the long delay was because I've tried repeatedly to enjoy and cherish Dock, but have failed. Do you know how unpleasant such things can be? Yes, if you've experienced the awkward case of having somebody keenly interested in you . . . but you can in no similar degree return the compliment. Well, I am sorry that Dock sits low in my esteem. Nonetheless, for years an attempt was made to develop honest affection for it. Maybe you shall be more fortunate. Let's hope so.
    Part of the problem may be that Broad Dock is our most common of various weeds called Docks. Broadleaf Dock is its complete name, serving well to contrast it with the less abundant, narrow-leaved Curly Dock. Pity that Curly Dock isn't the commonest, since its leaves taste far better. Garden sorrels of delicious tartness are cousins of these Docks, being other species of Rumex. But we grow sorrels and combat Docks for good reasons, Briefly: why wear burlap if we can be clothed in silk?
    The name "Dock" is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and also is applied to some other plants, such as spatterdock (a waterlily), burdock (a defiant, gigantic weed), and succory dock (Lapsana communis, or nipplewort, a tall, softly fuzzy dandelion cousin). Broad and Curly Docks, however, have established the strongest claim to the name. For although the prefatory adjective changes, the root is ever "Dock." Thus, Curly Dock can be Yellow Dock or Narrowleaf Dock; Broad Dock is also known as Bluntleaf Dock or Bitter Dock. No other English names are usually given to these weeds; in their European homeland they have various non-English names.
    One general description suffices for the pair, since they are quite alike except in Curly Dock having slender, less bitter leaves and it flowers earlier in spring. They grow in sun or shade, preferring moist soil but tolerating it dry. We see them in meadows, by trailsides, in waste places, in our garden beds --practically anywhere. They are short-lived perennials with powerful taproots, making great clumps of leaves and stems. Someone reported that the roots can plunge four and one-half feet into the earth! Locally I do not think this is possible.
    After a period of winter dormancy, the leaves surge forth. They appear tightly rolled, wrinkled and slimy, in a filmy sheath. At this stage they are beautiful, even mouthwatering, believe it or not. Before they are completely unfolded, often slugs have munched holes in them. After the big groundlayer leaves appear, the tall leafy flowerstems ascend, reaching over six feet high sometimes, though usually four feet or so.
    Dock flowers are tiny, numerous, greenish, and appear mainly in April through June, though can be seen from March until November. They ripen richly colored dark red-brown seeds that stand out prominently against straw-colored grasses of late summer and fall. Some such dark Dock stalks are used by arrangers of dried floral material. The sand-like seeds, frightfully profuse, are imbedded in chaffy husks. Actually cousins of buckwheat, they can be gathered, cleaned, and ground into flour. Still, unless the flour is especially tasty or nutritious, there is insufficient reason to procure the millions of seeds, doing all that work.
    Dock can feed us easily, yet. In spring, before they become old, blotched, dull, chewed full of holes and bitter withal, the leaves are edible. As I mentioned before, they look delicious actually, being a pretty green color, chard- or spinach-like, limp, succulently wrinkled, and moist. Alas, they seem to be composed of two parts bitter and one part astringency, with a hint of sorrel-like sourness just to tease our tastebuds. Although standard fare in books about wild edible plants, the Dock leaves around here are rarely worth eating raw. I who eat much, and am easily pleased with green food, eat little of Dock: primarily limiting my intake to Curly Dock's tenderest early spring leaves, added to a mixed salad. Cooking the leaves makes a decided improvement, but I hate cooking if perfectly fine raw leaves can be had. Dock leaves are amazingly impressive sources of iron. So they are good for us even if they don't taste good. Just like ice cream can hurt us even as it pleases us!
    Dock's yellowish roots, too, are edible, especially when young. I have eaten about 20 kinds of wild roots, but never felt desire for those of Dock. Several times I transplanted Docks. They did poorly. They would consistently sulk and stay small. Once I took a big, gently flavored Dock from a weedy place. Moved to my garden, it shrink, lost vigor, gained bitterness, then died. Slug food, ugly slug food is my general opinion now of these coarse weeds.
    If you have Docks, by all means taste them, then either keep the good and compost the bad, or do away with them all. In no case should you let them ripen seeds, unless you hope thereby to provide birdfood. If you like eating the greens, grow superior sorts such as the Patience Dock or Herb Patience (Rumex Patientia L.), or harvest from the wild. But do not eat too much. Docks, like sorrels, spinach, beets, chard and rhubarb, contain oxalic acid that is potentially harmful in quantity.
    Other uses for Docks include medicinal ones. It is alterative, astringent and tonic, combating some skin diseases and other problems. Docks also make various dye colors, depending upon the part of the plant used and the mordants.

    Originally published as the Seattle Tilth newsletter Weed of the Month in June 1991, along with an illustration drawn by Arthur Lee Jacobson.

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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