Growing and Savoring the Wonder of Rhubarb

Pin image for a rhubarb plant growing guide

Tart and bold, rhubarb stands out among vegetables. This winter-friendly plant offers a delightful surprise in springtime. Explore the world of rhubarb: learn how to grow and nurture this unique vegetable, and discover the joy of its tangy and delicious flavor.

Embracing the Rhubarb Season

As the farmer’s markets burst with vibrant red and pink stalks of rhubarb, the time has come to celebrate this versatile vegetable. While some may find its tartness off-putting, adding a touch of sugar reveals its true brilliance. Like sour candy, rhubarb can hit the spot, satisfying that craving for a burst of flavor.

Unveiling the Rhubarb Plant

The rhubarb plant boasts large leaves and red stalks, resembling celery. As a perennial in the Polygonaceae family, it is among the first vegetables to be harvested during the spring. Get acquainted with Rheum rhabarbarum, the scientific name for this remarkable plant.

red rhubarb stalks with green leaves

The Rhubarb Enigma: Toxic or Safe?

Rumors often circulate regarding the toxicity of rhubarb. Is it safe to consume? The answer is both yes and no. The stalks, which feature prominently in rhubarb recipes, are perfectly safe to eat when cooked or raw, although they are extremely tart in their raw state.

However, caution should be exercised with the leaves. They contain oxalic acid, a chemical that can have adverse effects on the kidneys. Eating the leaves in their entirety can make you ill. Nevertheless, if a leaf fragment inadvertently finds its way into your harvested rhubarb, there is no cause for panic.

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The Fruit or Vegetable Debate

Another intriguing aspect of rhubarb revolves around its classification. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Technically, it is a vegetable, but a legal ruling in the USA decided it should be considered a fruit. Why? Because rhubarb is most commonly utilized in cooking as a fruit. The confusion persists, adding a touch of whimsy to the rhubarb journey.

harvested rhubarb and leeks

Health Benefits of Rhubarb

Originating from central Asia, rhubarb has been treasured for its medicinal properties for over 5,000 years in China. It was also highly valued by Arabs, Greeks, and Romans in ancient times. Today, rhubarb is primarily enjoyed in sweetened desserts.

From a nutritional standpoint, rhubarb is an excellent source of vitamin K, which promotes bone health and blood clotting. The antioxidants present in rhubarb possess anti-inflammatory properties and contribute to heart health. Additionally, rhubarb is fiber-rich and acts as a natural laxative, aiding digestion.

Cultivating Rhubarb with Care

Growing rhubarb is a relatively simple endeavor, with the rewards reaped just a year after starting from seed. However, it is important to note that rhubarb requires a cold winter to thrive. For successful growth, winter temperatures should dip below 4°C (40°F) and average around 24°C (75°F) in the summer, or the plant should be hardy in zones 2-9.

Planting Rhubarb: Seeds or Crowns?

While it is possible to grow rhubarb from seeds, this method necessitates a lengthy process before harvest. Alternatively, you can start seeds indoors in April for transplanting into the ground by mid-May. However, keep in mind that the first year of growth from seed will not yield a harvest.

Alternatively, opt for rhubarb crowns, which can be planted in early spring when the ground is workable. Ensure that the plant’s roots are still dormant and new growth has not yet begun. Fall planting is also an option for dormant crowns or divisions obtained from friends or neighbors.

rhubarb seedlings growing

Caring for Rhubarb: Sun, Water, and Nutrients

Rhubarb thrives in full sun, so choose a bright spot to ensure healthy growth. Adequate watering during the summer is crucial for preventing stress-induced bolting. To retain moisture, apply a fresh layer of mulch around the base of the plant each fall.

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Given its size, rhubarb requires ample nutrients and organic matter to reach its full potential. Fertilize with a high-nitrogen fertilizer once the ground thaws in spring. Additionally, add well-rotted compost and worm castings to the soil for optimal growth.

Remove any flowering stalks promptly, as they indicate bolting, indicating that the plant is in a hurry to produce seeds. Rhubarb is quite resilient against pests, although slugs and snails may nibble on the leaves. Keep the surrounding area free of weeds to minimize potential pest infestations.

harvested rhubarb stalks with their leaves

Harvesting Rhubarb: A Twist of Joy

Rhubarb stalks come in various colors, ranging from bright pink and red to green. Unlike fruits, the color of rhubarb stalks does not indicate ripeness. Depending on your location, you can start harvesting the stalks anywhere from February to April. However, it is advisable to forgo harvesting during the first year to allow the plant to establish itself.

Whether you choose to harvest all the stalks at once for recipes or prefer to freeze or cut them as needed, harvesting rhubarb requires a special technique. Visit the Ames Farm Center for a step-by-step guide on the art of rhubarb harvesting.

harvesting rhubarb in a basket

Embracing the Pleasures of Rhubarb

Raw rhubarb is undeniably tart, leading most people to enjoy it cooked. However, some adventurous souls might savor its rawness when coated with sugar. Discover the delightful ways to enjoy rhubarb in various culinary creations.

Freezing Rhubarb for Prolonged Enjoyment

To relish the unique flavor of rhubarb for a few extra months, freezing is the way to go. Prepare your rhubarb by thoroughly washing the stalks to remove any dirt or grit. Discard the leaves, as they are not edible.

After drying the rhubarb, slice it into one-inch pieces. Blanching is optional but helps preserve the bright color of the rhubarb. Drop the sliced rhubarb into boiling water for exactly one minute, then transfer it to cold water to halt the cooking process. Dry the rhubarb before freezing.

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Label freezer bags or Mason jars with the date and store the rhubarb in the freezer. If you have specific recipes in mind, pre-measure the rhubarb before freezing. Properly frozen rhubarb can be stored for up to a year, providing a delightful taste of rhubarb throughout the seasons.

rhubarb bundles in a baking dish

Delectable Rhubarb Recipes to Try

While strawberry rhubarb pie is a classic favorite, there are countless other ways to relish rhubarb’s unique qualities. Explore the vast array of options that go beyond the traditional pie.

1. Rhubarb Lemonade

Give classic lemonade a tangy twist with a rhubarb syrup that adds a pink tinge and a burst of tartness.

2. Rhubarb Crisp

For those who prefer desserts other than pie, indulge in a rhubarb crisp that brings together a group for a delightful treat.

3. Rhubarb Sorbet

Take it up a notch by topping your rhubarb crisp with homemade rhubarb sorbet, or enjoy it on its own for a refreshing frozen delight.

Dish of homemade rhubarb sorbet

4. Strawberry Rhubarb Soda

Satisfy your craving for both sweetness and tartness with this twist on a classic pairing. This soda is the perfect refreshment on a sunny spring day.

5. Rhubarb Coffee Cake

Discover the unexpected combination of coffee and rhubarb in a delectable and comforting coffee cake that will leave you craving for more.

6. Strawberry Rhubarb Butter

Indulge in a mouthwatering treat by spreading this delightful butter on toast or crackers, courtesy of Grow Forage Cook Ferment.

Now, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and embark on the journey of growing your own rhubarb. It’s a rewarding experience that will fill your garden and kitchen with delightful flavors.

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