Rhubarb is one of my favourite perennial edibles. Although most often treated as a fruit, rhubarb is actually a vegetable. The edible stalks have a rich tart flavour making it a rather diverse ingredient in the kitchen. Rhubarb is the lowest maintenance food crop on our homestead. It requires a little bit of tending in the early spring and autumn but otherwise grows happily without interference. It’s easy to grow and hardy in pretty much all growing zones. Originating in Siberia, it thrives best in cooler climates but with some extra effort you can grow it successfully in hot climates as well.
In Canada the easiest variety to obtain is the Canada Red but there are many other varieties including: Valentine, Cherry Red, Ruby, Crimson, Macdonald, Irish Giant, Stockbridge Arrow, Victoria and Chinese.
Rhubarb is a very old plant. Its medicinal and horticulture uses have been recorded in history since ancient China. It can be traced back to the cold climates of Mongolia, Siberia and the Himalayas. The roots of this plant survive the frozen grounds which has made it an extremely enduring food source found in gardens across the globe.
Nutrition and Health Benefits
Rhubarb is referred to by many as a superfood for its amazing ratio of health benefits. It’s a low calorie food with only 7 calories per 100 grams. It increases metabolisms and is an excellent source of calcium. One cup of cooked rhubarb has as much calcium as a glass of milk . It is also high in fibre, low in cholesterol and loaded with vitamins C & K.
It has been widely used in Chinese medicine since ancient times. Chinese rhubarb (R. palmatum) is similar in appearance and composition to the rhubarb we grow here in North America but it has a much stronger flavour. To make the medicine, the root and rhizomes are harvested and dried. Rhubarb is used to treat a wide number of ailments including: treatment of constipation, diarrhoea, menstrual disorders, conjunctivitis and superficial sores and ulcers.
Obtaining Rhubarb Plants
Before planting select your garden patch. Remember than rhubarb can get huge overtime and will easily crowd out other plants. The stalks grow up to three feet and the leaves are huge! Prepare the bed by mixing some compost into the soil. Rhubarb really benefit from a healthy nutrient rich soil. Choose a location that is well drained, fertile, and in full sunlight (not too shaded). Plant it in early spring as soon as the ground is workable. The best time to plant is when the roots are still dormant. There shouldn’t be any leaves developing yet. It can also be planted in the late fall before the ground freezes.
Dig a large enough hole that the roots are a few inches below the soil. You want the crown to be at the same level as the top of the soil. Space your plants 3 Feet apart and give a reasonable amount of space between rows as well. Once planted tap down really well.
In the early spring, apply some fertilizer to your rhubarb patch and mulch it with a heavy layer of straw to suppress weeds and retain moisture through the summer. Water when it is very dry outside as it prefers moist soil, but be careful to not over water. It is a very hardy and tolerant plant. We often forget about our rhubarb patch entirely until it’s time to harvest.
You should remove the seed stalks as soon as they appear. This ensures that the plant will continue to put energy into producing the edible stalks rather than into seeds and reproduction.
Warm Climate Growing
Warm climate growing takes a bit of effort but it is possible. My friend Marion grows rhubarb on her homestead in Mexico! She digs it up in May (their hottest month) and refrigerates it until February to provide it with winter dormancy. Rhubarb needs cold dormancy to thrive. You will need to cut it back, dig it up, and place it in the refrigerator during your hottest season. Once the rhubarb has had sufficient dormancy (about three months) and the weather outside is a bit cooler you can replant it. It is a bit of an art working out how to best grow it in your warm climate, Make sure you plant your rhubarb in a well shaded area, use shade cloth if necessary and cover the ground with heavy mulch and a good layer of compost.
Uses For Leaves
Leaves are dangerous to consume due the the high quantity of oxalic acid that they contain. They are safe to add to your compost pile! You can also use the leaves to make your own insecticide.
Simmer 1 lb of chopped rhubarb leaves in 1 qt of water for half an hour. Strain and dilute the rhubarb leaf mixture with two quarts of cold water. Pour into a spray bottle. It only keeps for 24 hours so make only what you need.
Rhubarb is extremely resilient. Occasionally the leaves will get chewed or blemished but we have never had an issue with the stalks being eaten or harmed by pests or disease. Some fungi can attack your plants. You can usually prevent this by making sure your patch is planted in well drained soil and by applying a top coat of compost in the spring and mulch in the summer.
If your plants have been divided or were newly planted this year, do not harvest from them until next year. Leaving them alone will encourage good growth. Do NOT eat the leaves. They are toxic. Leaves are safe to compost and can also be used as a natural pesticide in the garden.
To harvest, grab the base of t a stalk and pull it away from the plant with a gentle twist. If you find this too difficult you can also cut the stalk at the base with a knife. Never remove all of the stalks when harvesting. You want to leave some behind so the plant will continue to grow.
The easiest way to store rhubarb is to freeze it. Simply wash the stems, chop them and spread them out on a tea towel to dry. Once dried place them in freezer bags. You can also preserve rhubarb following home canning recipes that include: stewed, chutney, jam & jelly.
Rhubarb is quite diverse and makes a lot of delicious items. It is a wonderful ingredient for desserts, beverages and savoury dishes. You can make a beautiful chutney, compote or ketchup using rhubarb. It adds a lovely tartness that pairs wonderfully with savoury dishes an fish, steak, pork or chicken. On the sweet side, rhubarb can offer far more than crumble and pie. Try it in jams and jellies or for lemonade, bread, muffins and even wine.
Around the homestead we love growing perennial edibles. They are low maintenance and reliable, producing food for many years. In addition to rhubarb you might want to consider planting other perennial edibles like: Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes), horseradish and sunflowers (yes, they are edible)!