We are all eagerly waiting for the last vestiges of winter, such as it was, to disappear and spring growth to really pick up. In the garden, rhubarb will be one of the earliest crops to poke its head out and by early May, it will be a mass of huge green leaves held up by thick green, pink, or red stalks.
Early pioneers welcomed its arrival as one of the first fresh foods available after the long winter of stored food. Long before that though, as far back as 2700 B.C., early Chinese revered it for its medicinal properties and used extracts of its root as a purgative. Early traders along the Silk Road brought Chinese rhubarb west to Europe. Marco Polo spoke of it in his writings of his travels to China in the 1200s A.D. Rhubarb is first mentioned as a food plant in Europe about 1778, and by 1800 it was showing up in the produce markets in the new United States.
Growing rhubarb is easy. It needs the cold climate of the northern latitudes to develop its thick stems and huge leaves. Once established the plants take little care and will produce for at least eight to 15 years. My planting is close to 25 years old with no sign of slowing down.
The color of the stalks depends on the variety. There are more than a dozen varieties available and their stalks can vary in color from green through pink to deep red. Some say that the green stalks are actually sweeter than the more popular red.
Rhubarb grows from root sections purchased in the spring either at local garden centers or by mail order. A good planting root will be at least as big as your hand with several pinkish growing buds at one end.
It needs a sunny location with well-drained soil amended with compost. Set the roots in the ground so the growing buds are at the surface. Although it is quite drought tolerant once established it benefits from a consistent supply of water. Wind a soaker hose around the root before the leaves begin growing in the spring and then water deeply every two weeks during the summer. Fertilize in the spring before growth starts with good compost or a cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer. It doesn’t need any winter mulching.
It is best to let the plant grow for a couple of years before beginning to harvest so the root has a chance to develop. Stalks can be harvested for one to two weeks the third year after planting. In succeeding years, harvest can extend for at least two months. Select thick stalks and separate them from the plant by taking hold of the stalk near the base of the plant and pulling firmly outward. Don’t remove more than a quarter of the leaves at a time. Trim off the leaf as it contains oxalic acid, a mild toxin.