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Here in NorCal, edible green things grow all year long, and you can take your pick if you are even a half-decent forager. This is not the case in the rest of the country, where actual winter shuts things down. Fortunately, there is a European weed called curly dock, or dock plant, that is as pervasive as it is persistent. As soon as you catch a whiff of spring, you’ll start to see dock.
Docks are in the rumex family, and are related to rhubarb and sorrel and oxalis. (Note that burdock is a different plant entirely.) If you’ve ever eaten any of these vegetables, you know they are tangy from the oxalic acid in them; rhubarb leaves have so much of this that they are toxic.
Think of dock as the love child of spinach and rhubarb or sorrel (R. acetosa), and you’ll get a good idea about the flavor of this edible wild green.
So how to go about foraging curly dock? Start by knowing that there are a number of varied species, some native and some invasive. Here in the West we have Rumex occidentalis, or Western dock plant.
Where I live it’s actually more common than curly dock, and it tastes similar. Other parts of the country have their own native docks, but the unifier is curly dock, R. crispus.
Look for curly dock in waste places and disturbed ground. Edges of things. It likes construction sites, fallow fields, places chewed up by vehicle tires, roadsides — in other words, a lot of places that aren’t exactly ideal for foraging, because plants growing in compromised places can sometimes contain heavy metals within them, or might have just been sprayed with pesticide.
Still, it’s not too hard to find decent places to pick dock if you walk around a bit.
The native docks tend to like to live near streams and in open forests, and occasionally you will find curly dock there, too. My spots are mostly in neglected corners of local parks, away from the manicured grass and the pesticides those lawns probably contain. There are also seashore docks (R. maritima) as well as desert docks, but I find the desert dock (R. hymenosepalus) to be really, really bitter.
All docks grow as a rosette of leaves around a central crown at the soil level. They all have broad, simple leaves, too. Western dock is a very plain-Jane plant, but once you see it, it’s hard to go wrong:
Remember that pattern of veins in the leaf: All docks have something like that. Also note the blotches. Docks tend to get these when the leaves get older — if you see those blotches, move on: The leaves will likely be bitter and leathery. Dock leaves are hairless, too, so if you see leaves that are fuzzy or bristly, it’s not dock.
Curly dock, as you might imagine, has wavy, ruffled edges to its leaves.
This makes curly dock one of the easier plants for beginners to identify. The leaves are fairly thick and the stems can get a tinge of red, especially in cold weather.
If you catch dock too late, it will send up a flower stalk that can grow to 3 feet high. It will have leaves along the stalk, and lots of tiny, greenish “flowers” that really don’t look like much. The stalk will ripen all summer and eventually turn an attractive, rusty brown. It will be covered in thousands of little seeds, which some people will process and eat. I can tell you this is a massive pain in the ass, and the flavor isn’t that great.
My advice: Don’t bother. Stick with the young leaves. A good way to look for curly dock is to look for the old, dead flower stalks, which persist all winter.
How young do you want your dock plant leaves? Very young. Look at the rosette. You will see leaves emerging that are rolled up tight. If you unroll one, you’ll notice it’s a little sticky-slimy. You want these leaves, and the ones that have just unrolled. The older the leaves get, the more bitter they become. Old leaves need to be boiled in at least one change of water to help mitigate this. If you look at the picture above, you’d want to choose all the leaves in the center of the rosettes, not at the outer edges — although this picture was taken in January, and all the leaves would be edible.
In hot weather, the young leaves are still good, but fully unrolled leaves get gnarly in a hurry.
What to do with them? I cook them like spinach. Remember, however, that like everything in the rumex clan, that pretty emerald dulls to Army green within seconds of hitting the heat. Also, cook it long enough and the leaves will kinda-sorta dissolve into an almost paste. A very tangy, lemony paste. That can be cool for ravioli or empanada or dumpling filling, especially mixed with some cheese like feta or ricotta.
You can also use curly dock in place of sorrel to make a classic French sorrel sauce. use the sauce on fish, light meat poultry or eggs.
What I did in the picture above was to go Ethiopian. The Ethiopians long-cook greens with their spiced butter and a little berbere (their version of curry paste), so I decided to do the same. Gotta say it rocked the house! Exotic, rich, spicy, tangy, “green.” For a less esoteric take, go for butter and Cajun seasoning.
Or olive oil, chile, garlic and black pepper. Or olive oil and Spanish smoked paprika. Or sesame oil and Japanese togarashi. You get the idea.
Thank you. I’m definitely a beginner, but now I know for sure I have curly dock in my back yard. I just tasted some young leaves for the first time. They did have a lemony flavor. This is awesome, learning to forage.
Hank, thank you so much for your site, articles, and recipes of wild edibles! I love them, and very interested in learning and cooking more. I’ve taken a couple of foraging classes. I’m also learning and sampling from my own backyard, very exciting!
ate my first curly dock last night…now on a binge to harvest a bunch!!
I think I just discovered Curly Dock in my backyard, but haven’t tried it yet. It’s early (1st week) of May here in TX, so I’m not sure if it’s too late to eat or not.
My aunt just sent me something on plantain which literally grows in the gravel by my drive way. She mentioned my grandmother use to find and prepare Poke, Sauer [German] Dock, and I still remember her rhubarb which she turned into a Rhubarb pie. I probably are poke and curly dock. But for some reason not the first two. Thanks for the share and I’ll be looking to fix some “Sauer” dock next spring to maintain the family tradition.
Certainly no one could object to you pulling up the weeds and eating them for dinner. But, I have always wondered if it is OK to collect the seeds and sow them in the garden on purpose. They seem to be solitary plants but, a bed of them in the backyard would make collecting them and ensuring quality a lot easier. Dock grown for spring greens would seem to be a good candidate. Perhaps in a corner of the garden the neighbors can’t see? Of course the next question is: What if I am renting?
Might the stems make a decent pie…ala rhubarb?
Jim: Maybe? I have never tried it.
What a great article! I’ve been trying to identify this plant for a while and this is by far the best resource that I’ve found. Thanks for confirming the treasure that I have growing right beside my patio!
What about the root? I live in Colorado and spend a lot of my time digging CD out of my hay fields. The leaves don’t interest me much. But the root is like a large carrot. Is it edible?
Gary: Not that I know of, but that’s because I have never looked into it.
The root is used in traditional herbal medicine as a tonic. I ended up here researching the edible uses for an article.
I have curly dock growing wild all over my property. No lake, no river, no stream, just lots of fertile soil and shade. Oh, and it rains here all the time (NW Oregon). I usually leave a couple of them alone to let them do their own thing, and in the past the leaves have grown longer than 1′, and the flower stalks get almost as tall as I am (6 ft.) I’d like to maybe do something with them, if they can provide a good food source, especially now with the whole world falling apart, I like the idea of having free food growing on my own land.
I’ll have to try some of these ideas, thank you!
I live in Missouri and I have some kind of Dock next to every corner and large rock on my property, no spray ever. I didn’t know what it was for the first year I was here, and only got the name dock from searching the internet several times… apparently I was looking for you. People here really don’t care what the weeds are and regard them all with disdain. I on the other hand want to know what every one of them are and can I eat it.
When I lived here back in the 60’s and early 70’s a lot of people knew the wild plants and used at least 1 wild thing in their supper menu but times have changed… I left in 1974 and didn’t return until 2015. I wish I’d paid closer attention back then, as I only remembered a few.
Hey Hank! Thanks for a thorough post. I live in Maine and just went on my first wild edibles walk yesterday with Russ Cohen. On my walk this a.m. I found some curly dock and took off some of the younger-looking leaves. Not sure I caught it early enough to have the curled up leaves. I’ll blanch mine and have them with garlic and olive oil.
The reason for eating the very young leaves and even then cooking well is the high amount of oxalates similar to, once again, spinach. Best to eat with a calcium rich food to counter the effects of the oxalates.
Toesin: Good tip on the calcium rich foods! I did not know that.
Can you eat in fresh in a salad?
Sharice: Yes, the very young leaves that are still a bit curled up.
As soon as young dock feels heat, the tender greens wither quickly. I add one-inch pieces to stir fry about a minute before I remove it from the stove. Delicious! I also add pieces to salads to cheer them up. Young curly dock is one of my favorite wild greens.
I’m pleasantly surprised! Until this article, I never had any good key identifiers for dock, and couldn’t find any anywhere. Thanks!
Thanks for the nice overview, Hank, and the shout-out. Glad to see you are eating your dock;)
Great ideas and links. I thought I had finally exhausted dock cooking possibilities until reading this!
Like Mad Dog and Jack, I’d never really thought of using them for anything but putting on nettle stings. I’m now thinking nettle and dock soup! I can’t believe you can use these for cooking. That’s brilliant. I live in the country and see docks everywhere. New ingredient means new recipes for me. Thanks.
Like Mad Dog, I only knew them in England as a quick cure for nettle stings (I assume it’s the oxalic acid) but I will be checking them out for sure. Maybe with Indian spices to see how to balance their acidity with buttery paneer, mmm.
Are these in the same family as poke salad? And is the preparation similar?
Nope. They are not. No need to change water if you get the young leaves.
I’ve only known them as an antidote to stinging nettles (if applied locally). Now, having looked them up as well as reading your post, I can see that they sound pretty good as food too! As a child they always used to grow adjacent to stinging nettles, so I guess one could feast on both 😉