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What's Up, Docks?

author & pollinator
Posts: 1120
Location: Blue Ridge Mountains
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Docks go under many names, and some varieties are commonly called sorrel, but are all members of the Rumex family which has around 200 members.  I have found approximately 38 Rumexes that have documented herbal use.  By far though, the most common is Yellow Dock.  While most (if not all) of the Docks are edible greens, the Yellow Dock root is used as a medicinal bitter herb.  

Hippocrates and Theophrastus wrote of Dock as “Lapathum.”  Pliny the Elder seems to have introduced the use of Dock to prevent scurvy.  He included “rumix” in his list of potherbs.  Dioscorides gives us a description of its herbal use in the ancient world:

Lapathum (one sort of it is called oxylapathum) grows in marshy places. It is hard and somewhat pointed towards the top, but that in the garden is not similar to the other. There is a third kind that is wild, small, similar to plantain, soft, low. There is also a fourth kind called oxalis, anaxuris, or lapathum, whose leaves are similar to the wild small lapathum; the stalk is not great; the seed is pointed, red, and sharp on the stalk and the branches. The herbs of all of these (boiled) soothe the intestines. Applied raw as a poultice with rosaceum or saffron it dissolves the melicerides [encysted tumour with exudation like honey]. The seed of the wild lapathum, oxylapathum and oxalis is effective (taken in a drink of water or wine) for dysentery, abdominal afflictions, a scorpion strike, and a nauseous stomach. If anyone drinks it beforehand he shall have no hurt when struck (by a scorpion). The roots of these boiled with vinegar (or used raw and applied as a poultice) cures leprosy, impetigo [skin infection] and rough nails, but you must first thoroughly rub the place in the sun with nitre [potassium nitrate — saltpetre] or vinegar. A decoction of sorrel applied with hot cloths or mixed with a bath relieves itchiness. It lessens earache and toothache used as a rinse with liquid from sorrel boiled in wine. Boiled in wine and applied, they dissolve scrofulous tumours [glandular swelling], goitres, and swollen parotid glands. A decoction boiled in vinegar lessens the spleen. Some use the roots as an amulet (hanging them around theneck) for goitre. Pounded into small pieces and applied, they also stop women’s flows. Boiled with wine and taken as a drink they help jaundice, break stones in the bladder, draw out the menstrual flow, and help those touched by scorpions.

In Monastic Medicine of the Middle Ages, Saint Hildegard von Bingen recommended black dock for "one who has lost his sense or intelligence or who is out of his mind."   She states that white dock is stronger than black dock, and better for such mental issues. But, it is also useful to bring on delayed menses, when infused in oil and applied to the abdomen topically.  She did not find sorrel to be useful as food or medicine.  Continuing in the tradition of Monastic and German Folk Medicine though, Brother Alysius used Rumex acetosa for stomach and chest complaints, scurvy, as a diuretic and to stimulate appetite.  He recommended Rumex crispus for skin complaints and eczema, and is a depurative (purifying and detoxifying).

According to Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel, the Ashkenazi Jews made a drink of the fresh plant mixed with milk for cough, chest ailments, asthma and haemoptysis.  A decoction of the plant including the flowers was used for colds and coughs.  

Gerard listed several varieties of Dock and “dock called sorrel”.  He stated their uses as:

 A. These herbs are of a mixture between cold and heat, and almost dry in the third degree, especially the seed which is very astringent.

B. The powder of any of the kinds of Docks drunk in wine, stoppeth the lask and bloody flux, and easeth the pains of the stomach.

C. The roots boiled till they be very soft, and stamped with barrow's grease, and made into an ointment helpeth the itch and all scurvy scabs and manginess. And for the same purpose it shall be necessary to boil them in water as aforesaid, and the party to be bathed and rubbed therewith.

Docks so commonly wild harvest or grown in gardens for food in Culpepper’s time that he wrote one of his more colorful entries on these plants:

Many kinds of these are so well known, that I shall not trouble you with a description of them. My book grows big too fast.

Government and virtues. All docks are under Jupiter, of which the red dock, which is commonly called blood-wort, cleanseth the blood, and strengthens the liver; but the yellow dock-root is best to be taken when either the blood or liver is affected by choler. All of them have a kind of cooling (but not all alike) drying quality, the sorrel being most cold, and the bloodworts most drying. Of the burdock, I have spoken already by itself. The seed of most of the other kinds, whether the gardens or fields, do stay lasks and fluxes of all sorts, the loathing of the stomach through choler, and is helpful for those that spit blood. The roots boiled in vinegar helpeth the itch, scabs, and breaking out of the skin, if it be bathed therewith. The distilled water of the herb and roots have the same virtue, and cleanseth the skin from freckles, morphew, and all other spots and discolourings therein.

All docks being boiled with meat, make it boil the sooner; besides, blood-wort is exceeding strengthening to the liver, and procures good blood, being as wholesome a pot-herb as any that groweth in a garden; yet such is the nicety of our times, forsooth, that women will not put it into a pot, because it makes the pottage black; pride and ignorance (a couple of monsters in the creation) preferring nicety before health.

John K’Eough wrote of three Docks commonly used in Ireland in the 1700s:

Sharp Pointed Dock - The roots made into an ointment with tobacco, are a great cure for itchy or scabby skin.  A decoction of the roots in ale or whey, taken internally is an excellent cure for any scurvy.  The seed is useful for stopping all hemorrhages or flow of blood.

Great Water Dock - It is very good against scurvy, ulcers of the mouth and gums, and all kinds of flow.

Garden Dock - It is somewhat purgative, it removes obstructions and is beneficial for the liver and spleen.

Mrs. Grieve went in to a good bit more detail in her book, A Modern Herbal:


Botanical: Rumex alpinus

The long stout root was also formerly used medicinally for its slight astringent qualities. It was considered good for jaundice.  It has a gentle laxative action. There are about ten or eleven kinds of native Docks.


Botanical: Rumex obtusifolius

Its broad foliage serves also to lodge the destructive turnip fly. The leaves are often applied as a rustic remedy to burns and scalds and used for dressing blisters, serving also as a popular cure for Nettle stings.

The cure was accompanied by the words:

'Nettle in, Dock;

Dock in, Nettle out

Dock rub Nettle out,'

and is the origin of the saying: 'In Dock, out Nettle', to suggest inconstancy.

A tea made from the root was formerly given for the cure of boils. The plant is frequently called Butter Dock, because its cool leaves have often been used in the country for wrapping up butter for the market.


Botanical: Rumex acetus

The root has been used in drinks and decoctions for scurvy and as a general blood cleanser, and employed for outward application to cutaneous eruptions, in the form of an ointment, made by beating it up with lard.

Both the Round-leaved Dock and the Sharp-pointed Dock, together with the BLOODY-VEINED DOCK (Rumex sanguineus) (which is very conspicuous on account of its veins and footstalks abounding in a bloodcoloured juice), make respectively with their astringent roots a useful infusion against bleedings and fluxes, also with their leaves, a decoction curative of several chronic skin diseases.


Botanical: Rumex crispus

The Yellow Dock is applicable to all the purposes for which the other species are used. The root has laxative, alterative and mildly tonic action, and can be freely used as a tonic and laxative in rheumatism, bilious complaints and as an astringent in piles, bleedings of the lungs, etc. It is largely prescribed for diseases of the blood, from a spring eruption, to scurvy, scrofula and chronic skin diseases. It is also useful in jaundice and as a tonic to the stomach and the system generally. It has an action on the bowels very similar to that of Rhubarb, being perhaps a little less active, but operating without pain or uneasiness.

Rumicin is the active principle of the Yellow Dock, and from the root, containing Chrysarobin, a dried extract is prepared officially, of which from 1 to 4 grains may be given for a dose in a pill. This is useful for relieving a congested liver, as well as for scrofulous skin diseases.

A syrup can be made by boiling 1/2 lb. crushed root in a pint of syrup, which is taken in teaspoonful doses. The infusion administered in wineglassful doses - is made by pouring 1 pint of boiling water on 1 OZ. of the powdered root. A useful homoeopathic tincture is made from the plant before it flowers, which is of particular service to an irritable tickling cough of the upper air-tubes and the throat. It is likewise excellent for dispelling any obstinate itching of the skin. It acts like Sarsaparilla for curing scrofulous skin affections and glandular swellings.

To be applied externally for cutaneous affections, an ointment may be made by boiling the root in vinegar until the fibre is softened and then mixing the pulp with lard.

The seeds have been given with advantage in dysentery, for their astringent action.

The Yellow Dock has also been considered to have a positive effect in restraining the inroads made by cancer in the human system, being used as an alterative and tonic to enfeebled condition caused by necrosis, cancer, etc. It has been used in diphtheria.


Botanical: Rumex aquaticus

This Dock has alterative, deobstruent and detergent action. Its powers as a tonic are, perhaps rather more marked than the previous species. For internal use, it is given in an infusion, in wineglassful doses. Externally it is used as an application for eruptive and scorbutic diseases, ulcers and sores, being employed for cleansing ulcers in affections of the mouth, etc. As a powder, it has cleansing and detergent effect upon the teeth.

The root of this and all other Docks is dried in the same manner as the Yellow Dock.


Botanical: Rumex Hydrolapathum

This Dock, also, has some reputation as an antiscorbutic, and was used by the ancients. The root is strongly astringent, and powdered makes a good dentifrice. It is this species that is said to be the Herba Britannica of Pliny. This name does not denote British origin - the plant not being confined to the British Isles - but is said to be derived from three Teutonic words: brit (to tighten), tan (a tooth), and ica (loose), thus expressing its power of bracing up loose teeth and spongy gums.

Miss Rohde (Old English Herbals) says:

'It is interesting to find that Turner identifies the Herba Britannica of Dioscorides and Pliny (famed for having cured the soldiers of Julius Caesar of scurvy in the Rhine country) with Polygonum bistorta, which he observed plentifully in Friesland, the scene of Pliny's observations. This herb is held by modern authorities to be Rumex aquaticus (Great Water Dock).'

As a stomach tonic the following decoction was formerly much in use: 2 oz. of the root sliced were put into 3 pints of water, with a little cinnamon or liquorice powder, and boiled down to a quart and a wineglassful taken two or three times a day. The astringent qualities of the root render it good in case of diarrhoea, the seeds (as with the other Docks) having been used for the same purpose. The green leaves are reputed to be an excellent application for ulcers of the eyes.

A very interesting entry in Clover Leaf Farm’s Herbal Encyclopedia tells us of the use of Dock among native groups in the Americas:

The Iroquois used tea made from the roots to treat upset stomach, kidney problems, and general bowel problems. Many tribes, including the Blackfoot, Paiute, and Shoshone, used the herb topically by applying the mashed root to sores and swellings.

Sorrel is an ingredient of a Native American anticancer remedy known as Essiac, which also includes burdock, slippery elm, and Chinese rhubarb. Western herbalists learned of it early in the 20th century when a Canadian nurse observed the recovery of a breast cancer patient who had used the formula some twenty years previously. This nurse began using it with great success; and, despite attempts to extract the formula for financial gain, she stood firm in giving it out to whomever needed it without charge. Despite the successful treatments, no proper clinical trials have ever been undertaken when it was understood that it could not be exploited.

Apparently, the shape and reddish colour of the root must have reminded someone of a cow’s tongue and thereby named it “Lengua de vaca”.

The Aztecs called it “atlinan”, meaning “its mother is water”. This referred to the plant’s preferance in growing in streambeds. They also called it “axixpatlicóztic”, meaning “yellow urine medicine,” which referred to its use as a diuretic.

In a 1629 treatise entitled Heathen Superstitions That Today Live Among the Indians Native to This New Spain, a cleric described an Aztec remedy using the herb in an enema to treat stomachache and fever. The roots and leaves were also ground and sprinkled on wounds and sores.

Docks continued to have official use in American Medicine as detailed in King’s Medical Dispensatory of 1898:

Action, Medical Uses, and Dosage.—The dock roots are decidedly alterative, tonic, mildly astringent, and detergent, and are eminently useful in scorbutic, cutaneous, scrofulous, scirrhous and syphilitic affections, leprosy, elephantiasis, etc.; for which purpose we prefer the Rumex crispus, which is principally employed for its alterative and tonic influences in all cases where these are desired. Preparations from old material are worthless, but very efficient medicines are produced from the green root. The drug induces retrograde metamorphosis, increases innervation, and improves nutrition. In bad blood with skin disorders it is exceedingly efficient, acting decidedly upon the glandular system, removing chronic lymphatic enlargements, and especially influencing those conditions in which there is a tendency to indolent ulcerations and low inflammatory deposits. The most direct indication for its use is a scrofulous condition with low deposits in the cellular tissues and glands with a tendency to break down and but little tendency to repair. It should be used both locally and internally. Small doses of specific rumex are useful in nervous dyspepsia, with epigastric fullness and pain, and aching or darting pain in the left chest, with flatulent distension of the stomach and eructations of gas. It is said to cheek painless watery diarrhoeal discharges. Rumex is employed for "cough with a sensation of fullness in the chest, with sighing, yawning, and efforts to take a full inspiration." It is most valuable in respiratory affections showing impoverished and vitiated blood. It may be employed in laryngeal, tracheal, and bronchial catarrh, and in chronic sore throat with hypersecretion, and is not without good effects in incipient phthisis. Summer coughs, of a dry and stubborn character have yielded to it (Webster). The fraction of the drop acts best here. Internally in doses of from 1/10 to 1/5 drop specific rumex may be employed for the relief of army itch (contagious prurigo).

The fresh root bruised in cream, lard, or fresh butter, forms an excellent ointment for scrofulous ulcers, scrofulous ophthalmia, itch, and a discutient for indolent glandular tumors. An ointment of the root of R. crispus, and the root-bark of Celastrus scandens, with gunpowder, is said to prove a certain cure for the itch, as well as being of value in other cutaneous diseases and ulcers. Its efficacy (of the ointment) in itch is probably chiefly due to the sulphur in the gunpowder. The powdered root is recommended as a dentifrice, especially when the gums are spongy. Dose of the decoction or syrup, from 1 to 4 fluid ounces, 3 times a day; specific rumex, fraction of a drop to 30 drops.

Specific Indications and Uses.—Bad blood with chronic skin diseases; bubonic swellings; low deposits in glands and cellular tissues, and tendency to indolent ulcers; feeble recuperative power; irritative, dry laryngo-tracheal cough; stubborn, dry, summer cough; chronic sore throat, with glandular enlargements and hypersecretion; nervous dyspepsia, with epigastric fullness and pain extending through left half of chest; cough with dyspnoea and sense of praecordial fullness.

Plants for a Future lists far too many Docks for me to include them all here.  Of Rumex Crispus, which it calls Curled Dock, specifically, it states:

Curled dock has a long history of domestic herbal use. It is a gentle and safe laxative, less powerful than rhubarb in its action so it is particularly useful in the treatment of mild constipation. The plant has valuable cleansing properties and is useful for treating a wide range of skin problems. All parts of the plant can be used, though the root is most active medicinally. The root is alterative, antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, laxative and mildly tonic. It used to be sold as a tonic and laxative. It can cause or relieve diarrhoea according to the dose, harvest time and relative concentrations of tannin(astringent) and anthraquinones (laxative) that are present. It is used internally in the treatment of constipation, diarrhoea, piles, bleeding of the lungs, various blood complaints and also chronic skin diseases. Externally, the root can be mashed and used as a poultice and salve, or dried and used as a dusting powder, on sores, ulcers, wounds and various other skin problems. The root has been used with positive effect to restrain the inroads made by cancer, being used as an alterative and tonic. The root is harvested in early spring and dried for later use. Some caution is advised in its use since excess doses can cause gastric disturbance, nausea and dermatitis. The seed is used in the treatment of diarrhoea. A homeopathic remedy is made from the fresh root, harvested in the autumn before frost has touched the plant. It is only used in the treatment of a specific type of cough.

Admittedly, I have mainly considered the Docks and Sorrels to be salad greens and pot herbs.  Sheep Sorrel, which is a Rumex, was one of the first wild plants I enjoyed as a child.  I would eat the leaves and chew the stems like sour candy.  It is clear that I need to make more use of them medicinally.  

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at

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The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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