Fresh rhubarb pie is one of the first treats out of the garden in the spring. When mixed with early spring strawberries, nothing can be better.
Rhubarb is possibly mentioned in 1,800-year-old Chinese texts where its root was used for medicinal purposes. It may have found its way to Greece during Roman times.
However, by the beginning of the Islamic era, it was regularly being traded along the Silk Road, making its way to northern Europe by the 14th century. It wasn’t until sugar became readily available and affordable that the tart, astringent leaf stalks of the plant were used as food. By the time it reached North America, one of its common names was pie plant.
The stalks of the leaves are edible, but the leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid which can create kidney problems if too much of them are eaten. The leaves can be 2 feet or more across on a healthy plant. When cut from the stem, they make a good weed blocker when spread out in the garden. They have also been used as molds for tufa concrete sculptures and hats for kids playing outdoors.
Growing rhubarb is easy. The plant is very hardy, needs little care and will produce for 10 years or more before needing to be divided. The patch I planted 35 years ago is still thriving .
Roots can be purchased from a local garden center or online in early spring as a chunk of root with a growing eye. The root piece is planted in well-drained soil amended with compost so that the growing eye is at the soil surface. They will need to be kept moist the first couple of years but after they become established, the plants only need watering about once a week in July and August.
Fertilize them in the early spring before the leaves emerge. In the spring, the plant will send up cream-colored or light pink flower stalks. These need to be snapped off to force the plant to put its energy into the leaves and stems.
The plants can be harvested from May into late June. Rhubarb rarely has any insect or disease issues, and they are very deer resistant. Clean up the leaf debris in the fall.
Rhubarb needs two years to establish before being harvested. In the third year, take only a few stalks. After that don’t take more than half the leaves off a plant in the season as it needs them to produce food for the root. To harvest rhubarb, reach to the base of the leaf stalk and gently tug on it to break it free. Cutting the stalks with a knife leaves stubs that can harbor rot.
There are several cultivars available on the market; some have green stems, others have red. Cultivars that produce red stems are the more popular variety and include McDonald’s Canadian Red, Holstein Bloodred, Victoria and Cherry Red. Green stemmed varieties include Riverside Giant and Turkish. Turkish also has a milder flavor than other varieties.