Let me introduce you to a couple of easily identifiable backyard cousins: bitter dock (also known as broad leaf dock) and curly dock. Both species are edible greens that give substantial yield, but bitter dock is well, bitter, like a dandelion. Don’t let that turn you off; bitter is medicinal, flat out. When cooked, spiced, and added in the right food combinations it tastes just fine.
The greens of curly dock are an excellent sour vegetable, picked young. You will find increasing degrees of bitterness in the leaves as the stalk is growing, and after flowering they will become texturally tough and especially bitter, but if you’re hungry, it’s nothing that cooking in a change of water won’t solve. Also in early winter, after the first freeze, they again create new tender leaves that are good for eating but will turn progressively bitter as the winter progresses.
Commonly found along roadsides, disturbed soil, meadows and lawns, these two plants pack a nutritional punch. Both docks contain vitamin C, vitamin A, amino acids to build protein, and lots of iron. The greens are known to have approximately four times more beta carotene than carrots. The human body converts carotene into vitamin A, which improves night vision.
In the fall to spring season roots and seeds of both of these species are also edible.
These two kissing cousins are members of a plant family called Polygonaceae, meaning many joints or elbows, and a genus called Rumex. All Rumex have a distinct papery sheath in the center of the leaves where the new leaves are growing. This enables the new leaves to stay hydrated and moistened in almost any weather conditions. This papery sheath (called an ocrea) connecting stem to leaf starts out moist when young and becomes papery and less noticeable when dried, sometimes disappearing completely. To distinguish between bitter dock and curly dock, look to the edge of the leaf. The edge of curly dock has a wavy “crisped” margin, and is thinner and longer than bitter dock. Bitter dock, meanwhile, has a slightly less wavy edge and much wider leaves, with often a red tinge in the leaf stalk and midrib that increases with age. The prettiest plants on the block they are not, but they may be just what the dock ordered.