By Melinda Heigel, EMGV
The high-contrast lanceolate to oblong leaf of bloody dock. (Image credit: M. Heigel)
It’s the time of year when we are all trying to inject color into the garden by planting snapdragons, pansies, and violas, those wonderful dogged plants that keep trucking through the winter and shine like diamonds again in the spring. Pansies are often my go-to choice, especially for containers, and I am always looking for interesting companion plants to add some visual interest with height, texture and color. I am also on the hunt for plants that are just as hardy and resilient as the unflappable pansy. One of my favorite companion plants that checks all the boxes is bloody dock (Rumex sanguineus).
Also commonly known as red-veined dock, bloodwort, wood dock, or more generically sorrel, this herb is readily available in nurseries and local garden centers alongside the basil and sage. Although I typically treat R. sanguineus as an annual, it’s technically a herbaceous perennial. Part of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) and native to Europe and northern Iran, there are more than 200 species of sorrel which vary–annuals to biennials to perennials, showy to less colorful. This tough plant is hardy in Zones 4-8 and in our central North Carolina climate is typically an evergreen. I prize this plant most for its ornamental foliage. Its got great bright-green color with a stunning deep-red venation which provides a perfect canvas on which to contrast cold-hardy annuals. Sorrel is a great “filler” in container gardening vernacular (as in thriller, filler, and spiller). I have included it with success in several fall-container planting projects along with pansies (Viola x wittrockiana), violas (Viola spp.), creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), cushion spurge (Euphorbia epithymoides), and underplanted tulips (Tulipa). And while it might look at little worn in the coldest depths of the winter, it perks up right on cue when spring’s warmer temps arrive.
(Left to right) Just home from the local nursery with a box of blotch pansies, violas, snapdragons, and bloody dock in October 2021. At home in the planter come spring of 2022, bloody dock provides volume, contrasting texture, and makes a planter full of pansies look complete. (Below left to right) Using bloody dock in a large container underplanted with tulips in spring of 2020. I am especially fond of pairing bloody dock with pink to red-toned leaves and flowers. Red tones echo the bloody dock’s venation and red and green are opposite colors on the color wheel. Using opposite color combinations on the color wheel makes for plantings with striking contrast that really pop. (Image credit: M. Heigel)
While I typically use bloody dock for container gardening, it has broader use cases. Its 12-18″ clumping habit makes it a perfect candidate for borders and edging in the garden. Bloody dock prefers full-sun, but anecdotally, I have had success in part-sun conditions too. It prefers moist, well-drained soil. If planted in your garden beds as a perennial, the plant sprouts a flower stalk in late spring that is more for self seeding than for its beauty. Pinch these inflorescences back to encourage a fuller, more dense plant. As I mentioned, this plant is readily available at your local nursery but can also be cultivated by sowing seeds in the spring or plant division. In addition to container and front-of-the border applications, I have always read that bloody dock is edible at certain times of its life-cycle. (It’s amazing what you learn when you take time to just read the little plant tags that come along with your nursery plants!) However, the ornamental version I use in containers is less-often consumed. Other species of Rumex are better-suited for use as garnishes and for adding a tart flavor in salads. Exercise caution, however; gardeners looking to eat Rumex spp. should do some additional research, only use young small leaves, and tread lightly as the plant is high in oxalic acid which can cause stomach upset if you eat too much or have other health conditions. 1 As for me, I think I’ll stick to enjoying this plant’s beauty with my eyes only in my fall-to-spring containers.
1– For a general look at docks and sorrels, including more information about eating certain types, see North Carolina State University’s Plant Toolbox site https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/rumex/. You can also google Rumex+NCSU to read about additional species of the plant.
Reading and Additional Information
North Carolina State University and University of Wisconsin extension sites listed below offer additional information on Rumex sanguineus.
For more information about planting containers, The University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension site offers a good overview that includes tips on the right soil mixture as well as plant and container choices.
Although the specimen spotlight focuses on bloody dock, check out Penn State Extension’s factsheet on using and caring for pansies for the fall and spring growing seasons. Bloody dock and pansies can be a great pairing, so why not keep them both in tip-top shape?
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