Faithfully returning year after year, garden rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a healthful edible that I am grateful to see when the sun warms the soil.
Growing up, rhubarb was a food my family ate stewed and by the bowlful. When we moved, I remember my mother bringing a rhubarb start to establish in a new garden. This lowly vegetable – and yes, it is a vegetable – was a "comfort food" we all enjoyed. And took for granted.
Now, as a northern gardener, I appreciate this cool-season perennial much more.
Reliably winter-hardy, rhubarb is ideally suited to the northern garden. That early flush of growth we all recognize emerges from the plant crowns, which are fleshy rhizomes. The reddish stems that appear (called petioles) are tart, but juicy and flavourful given the right sweetening. The leaves are not edible because they contain high levels of oxalic acid.
Rhubarb has been a common plant in Canadian gardens since pioneer times. In those early days, people relied on it as a nutritious food source after a long winter. Rhubarb does contain several important nutrients, including Vitamins A and C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, potassium and phosphorus.
Cultivation basics ...
Rhubarb tolerates most soil types, but it grows best in fertile, well-drained soils enriched with plenty of organic matter. The plant can tolerate slightly to moderately acidic soil (soil pH as low as 5.0), but it will do better with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. (A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral.)
Rhubarb loves a good feed of nutrients. Composted manure is an ideal source as it helps to conserve moisture and preserve soil structure, while making nutrients available to plants. Rhubarb is drought tolerant, but a mulch of straw around the crowns is useful for conserving moisture.
As flower stalks appear, they should be removed before the flowers open. This keeps plant energy directed to the production of leaves.
Over time, rhubarb crowns become crowded and will produce smaller stalks. Pruning with a spade, digging vertically to reduce the overall size of the crown should improve growth. Prune to 4 or 5 buds. These are long-lived plants, though, and you shouldn't need to do this until crowns are 5 to 9 years old, according to one provincial rhubarb production guide. You can also lift and divide the crowns, rather than prune, if you want more plants.
If you are looking to establish a rhubarb bed, keep in mind that these perennials like lots of room. Place root starts 100 cm apart. Planting any closer will crowd the plants and lessen the crop yield. In the home garden, planting in a raised bed is ideal as rhubarb needs good drainage to avoid rot in the crowns.
Here are a few more planting tips:
- Dig an extra large hole for the crown.
- Mix composted manure and/or peat most with the soil.
- Firm the soil around the roots, but keep it loose over the buds.
- Gently work 50 ml of 5-10-10 fertilizer into the top 25 cm.
- Water well after planting.
- Let the plant grow without picking stems for the first year after planting.
In the fall, after the first hard frost, collect and compost the last few stalks. Spread a shallow layer of compost (or leaves or hay) to prevent winter winds from drying out the crowns.
Savouring the harvest ...
I recommend visiting the Pie Recipe page at the Rhubarb Compendium. So many variations on a delightful theme.
But don't forget about muffins, crumble and cake, tarts, jam, even savoury dishes.
For years, when there hasn't been time to make a pie, I've prepared this easy, old-time Nova Scotia dessert.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated suge
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups diced rhubarb
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup packed brown suge
1/4 cup butter
1 bsp lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon rind
pinch of nutmeg
SAUCE – Into boiling water, stir brown sugar and butter until sugar dissolves and butter melts. Add lemon juice, rind and nutmeg. Pour gently over batter. Bake in 350°F (180°C) oven for 30 too 35 minutes or until pudding is golden brown on top and centre is firm to the touch.
Servings: About 6
Named for a recipe made popular on a 1940s radio show,, this adaptation appeared in Canadian Living magazine in the 1980s.
So go out, pick some rhubarb and enjoy this rosy-coloured gift of spring. It's good for you!
Basket of rhubarb. 2011. RhubarbFarmer (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Rhubarb flower stalks. 2012. Urban Gardening in DC
Rhubarb pie. The Food Network
What's your favourite rhubarb recipe? Share in a comment.