by Ellen Zachos
Dock going to seed. Photos by Ellen Zachos.
What makes a plant invasive?
Most people describe an invasive plant as a non-native with an aggressive growth habit, which negatively affects native species, but I don’t like this definition. I don’t care where a plant came from, especially if it’s useful and tasty. And when a useful, tasty plant has an aggressive growth habit, I recommend eating it to keep it under control.
Several species of dock are common weeds. Native to Europe and Western Asia, dock is a highly successful transplant, and now grows on all seven continents. Foragers appreciate dock for its tart, lemony flavor, its abundance, and the fact that it’s free. In northern New Mexico, Rumex crispus is the most common dock species, commonly known as curly dock (for its wavy leaf margins) or yellow dock (for the color of its root).
Dock is a perennial plant, found in open fields and drainages. Its greens are among the first wild edibles to emerge in spring. New growth will emerge from the base of old stalks, so look for last year’s tall, dried flower stalks to locate tender, young plants. Pick the youngest (perhaps even unfurled) leaves at the center of each clump. They will be intensely mucilaginous, so be prepared for sticky fingers.
From early to mid-spring, young dock leaves are tasty raw or cooked. The mucilage in the leaf stems can be overwhelming, so if you want to eat dock raw, remove the stem and use only the leaf blade in salads. By early summer, dock greens become tough and fibrous. However, when cool temperatures return in fall, dock puts out a second round of tender leaves. Bonus!
Like many greens, dock reduces in volume when cooked, to about twenty to twenty-five per cent of its original volume. The application of heat dulls the color of the leaves and also changes dock’s texture from crisp to creamy. Dock greens are excellent in stir-fries, soups, stews, and egg dishes.
The sour flavor of dock comes from oxalic acid, which may cause kidney stones when consumed in large quantities. Lest you be alarmed, the same compound is found in spinach. If your doctor has advised you not to eat spinach, or if you are prone to kidney stones, don’t eat dock. If you are generally healthy and don’t gorge yourself on pounds of dock every day for a month, you should be fine.
In summer, small white flowers are held on tall branching stalks, and those flowers are followed by multitudes of vibrant, reddish brown seeds. It’s easy to collect enough for several cups of flour in a very short time. Strip the seeds from their stems by running your hand along the stem from bottom to top, catching the seeds. Use the entire seed head (no need for winnowing) and enjoy the extra fiber. Pick out any leaves and bugs that may have come along for the ride, and if your seeds aren’t one hundred percent dry, give them a few hours in the dehydrator, or let them dry in the sun between two screens. The screens are important as the seeds are very lightweight and may easily blow away.
Once the seed is dry, you can grind it and use it as flour as is, but a quick and easy, extra step will make your flour more flavorful. Preheat your oven to 350°F and spread the dock seeds on cookie sheets in a thin layer. Bake the seeds for five minutes, then pull them out of the oven and let them cool. You’ll immediately smell the difference. The scent is rich and dark with hints of caramel. Store your roasted dock seeds in a tightly-covered glass jar until you’re ready to use them.
To make flour, pour the roasted seeds into the dry grains canister of a Vitamix or a coffee bean grinder and pulverize until the seeds are as fine as flour. Because roasted dock seed flour is gluten-free, it doesn’t bind as well as traditional flours. To hold your baked goods together, use dock seed flour in combination with traditional flours (half and half) in breads, muffins, brownies, and crackers.
The next time you hear someone call dock an invasive weed, or disparage it for not being a native plant, you’ll know that person has never eaten dock greens or baked with dock seed flour. Once you’ve done those things, you won’t curse it as a non-native invader; you’ll celebrate this versatile immigrant.