Rhubarb is a vegetable fit for dessert

Last week I wrote about asparagus. Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is another perennial vegetable that requires little care. Few people grow it around here. Likely, it’s because our hot summers take their toll on it. You have to pick the right place for your patch or you’ll not be successful.
This past winter was harsh, but it was a great winter for rhubarb. It grows best where the ground freezes and temperatures remain below 40 degrees. This spring I have an impressive crop of healthy thick reddish stems. Last year it struggled.
Consequently, rhubarb is more common in the coldest parts of the country. We can grow it here, but it requires some protection from the hot afternoon sun. That can come from a well-placed tree or some taller annual or perennial plants. The problem is that rhubarb is a sun loving species. Your goal is to protect plants from extreme heat while giving them ample light.
Harvesting before the third year might stress the plants. But after that time stalks may be cut freely. Make sure not to remove more than about a third of the stalks at any one time. Cutting too many weakens roots for the next season.
Early spring growth seems to have better flavor and texture than that harvested later in the year. The part of the plant you eat is actually called the petiole, which is part of the leaf. Harvest them as close to the ground as possible either by pulling them or cutting them off with a sharp knife. Remove the leaf blades and use the petioles in your favorite recipes. I consider maximum high quality shelf life less than a week. After that you should either freeze or can your rhubarb.
When you see flower stalks, cut them off close to the ground. They rob the plant of energy. Beds will need to be divided every six to eight years. Do it when plants are dormant or at least haven’t grown very much in the spring.
I love a rhubarb pie mixed with fresh strawberries. A big bowl of rhubarb sauce is a treat too. If you’ve never eaten it before and you have a sweet tooth, be ready to use copious amounts of sugar. Rhubarb stalks are very sour but they have a delightful flavor once you get past that.
Some people use preparations of rhubarb roots to treat many digestive problems and cold sores. Roots are a potent stimulant laxative. Only older mature plants should be used as removing roots weakens general plant health. Leaf blades should not be consumed as they are very high in oxalic acid and can be especially troubling for people who form oxalate kidney stones.
Chemicals in rhubarb roots also interfere with some anti-inflammatory medicines, most notably corticosteroids like prednisone. Root extracts also can interact with many blood thinning medicines. Keep that in mind when sources discuss rhubarb for medicinal use they are most likely discussing root tissue. The stalks contain very little medicinally. They just make a great pie.


Healthy rhubarb stalks

Healthy rhubarb stalks

Huge rhubarb leaf blade

Huge rhubarb leaf blade

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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2 Responses to Rhubarb is a vegetable fit for dessert

  1. The Forager says:

    Hi Ted,
    Although you’re quite right (as ever) that it goes better with some cold times, we can grow rhubarb well enough here in Sydney with no frosts and summer temps above 100 on a good few days. For us, there are some varieties that deal with warm climates better. Being something that side shoots can be taken from, finding someone with a good strain for the area is a good way to go. I grow mine next to (in a terrace just above so not root-competing) the asparagus bed so that it gets full sun in winter, but shade in summer that increases up to maximum amount in the hottest couple of months.

    • tedmanzer says:

      That’s wonderful news. I’ll have to do some research.
      I’ve always dug a few clumps from my parents’ place in Maine and that strain would certainly be more adapted to cold. I get a few years out of it before the summer heat and humidity melt it out. If I could get a good patch growing here it would be great!

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