If the human race were to disappear tomorrow, only two cultivated plants – rhubarb, in its original variety, and asparagus – would continue to thrive in their current form. In contrast, other fruits and vegetables, if they managed to survive, would likely revert to their wild ancestral states.
A little bit of Rhubarb history
Originally native to Asia, rhubarb (rheum rhabarbarum) was first cultivated in China nearly 5,000 years ago. In the 1500s, it was introduced to Europe where it was primarily used for medicinal purposes. However, it wasn’t until the early 1700s that rhubarb became a popular food staple. This was due in part to the declining cost of sugar, which was used to balance out, or perhaps even enhance, the sour taste of the original varieties.
Botanists classify rhubarb as a vegetable, but in the culinary world, it is considered a fruit due to its flavor and usage. The United States Customs Office has even recognized it as a fruit. Conversely, although botanically a fruit, tomatoes are commonly thought of as vegetables. It seems that things balance out in the end.
Until the early 1800s, rhubarb had not yet been introduced to the United States. Its arrival was first documented in Maine and then in Massachusetts. Nowadays, rhubarb is a well-known garden plant, but relatively few gardeners actually cultivate it.
Once upon a time, rhubarb held a much higher status. It was widely regarded as the quintessential spring fruit and was even commonly referred to as “pie plant.” In fact, early pioneers traveling west to settle in new areas often carried rhubarb roots with them, carefully wrapping them in burlap to ensure safe transport.
The roots, known for their toughness, could withstand the journey when occasionally dampened and kept in the dark. Upon planting in the soil of their new homestead, rhubarb became the first and often only source of domestic fruit for making pies and other sweet treats that were so highly sought after by hardworking ancestors.
Did I just say “only fruit”? In fact, almost all the fruit trees we cultivate today were domesticated in the Old World, so when Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they encountered none of the apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, and other familiar tree fruits we know today.
Moreover, since the most productive fruit trees are usually grafted onto wild rootstock, it takes time to establish these trees. It’s no surprise, then, that early pioneers cherished rhubarb as they did. With just two years’ growth, they could have a productive rhubarb patch.
People often say that “Rhubarb is poisonous!” If that were true, I certainly wouldn’t want to eat it. However, there’s a catch: the leaves and roots contain high levels of oxalic acid, which is indeed toxic. While not extremely dangerous in small amounts, it’s still not advisable to cook or eat those large green leaves in a salad.
The part of the plant that is safe to consume are the stems, which are known for their extreme sourness. They are less sour than chokecherries but slightly sourer than pie cherries. Personally, I enjoy sucking and chewing on the stalks, but I must admit that the initial taste can make you pucker up.
Rhubarb is an incredibly versatile fruit. There’s no limit to what you can make with it – from pies, bars, and coffee cake to jam, conserve, jelly, sauce, and much more. Plus, it’s incredibly low maintenance and can last for years, even a lifetime, with very little care.
The original variety of rhubarb was a classic – with white stalks at the bottom, red in the middle, and green at the top. It was tart, but delicious, and is still commonly grown in gardens today. In fact, I have one in my garden that was given to me by a dear friend.
Over the years, plant breeders have developed some improved varieties of rhubarb, with stalks that are red throughout and much sweeter. These are so sweet that I don’t even make a face when I chew them!
One such variety is Canada Red – an older variety that produces long, thick stalks with a dark red color that fades to a lighter red inside. It is very sweet and productive. Another newer variety is Valentine, which is very sweet and a deep red throughout, even after cooking.
Today, there are over 60 varieties of rhubarb available, and most nurseries and mail-order seed companies offer several in their catalogs. While you can grow rhubarb from seed, it takes several years for the plants to mature enough to produce stalks that are ready for harvest, similar to asparagus.
How to plant rhubarb
Rhubarb is often shared between gardeners by dividing the mother plant and giving a root or two to a friend. If you know someone with a lot of rhubarb, you can ask them for a root or two to start in your own garden. As the plants grow and get larger, you can divide them to expand your rhubarb patch. If you plan to can or make rhubarb-based products, you may need at least a dozen plants.
If you don’t want to wait for years to increase your supply, you can purchase roots from nurseries or mail-order seed catalogs. The roots are typically thick but not too large, so you won’t need to dig a deep hole to plant them. Rhubarb prefers a sunny spot with well-draining, loamy soil. It’s important to avoid waterlogged areas, so if your garden is in a low-lying spot, consider building a raised bed.
Rhubarb is a heavy feeder, so you should dig a hole three times larger than the root needs. Place a shovel full of rotted manure at the bottom of the hole and add good topsoil around the root. Then, add a shovel full of compost and water the area well. Plant the root at roughly the same depth as it was previously growing, or slightly deeper.
Once the leaves start to emerge, mulch each plant with old straw to retain moisture. During the first year, the plants will grow quickly, but you should avoid picking any stalks as it will weaken the plant. In the second year, you can start harvesting but only a little bit. The following year, the plants will be large and highly productive.
It’s best to plant your rhubarb patch in a spot where it can grow undisturbed for many years. Space each plant at least two feet apart, or even three feet if you have enough room, in rows that are four feet apart. Full-grown rhubarb plants can be over waist-high, with leaves that are two feet long and stalks that are difficult to grasp with just one hand.
Discovering a neglected row of rhubarb plants in your new garden may seem disheartening. The leaves are small, the stalks thin, and the grass has taken over. You may be tempted to dig it up and discard it, but there is a way to revive the plants. Luckily, rehabilitating rhubarb is a straightforward process.
I once had a patch of two dozen sickly plants on our old farm. The leaves were bug-eaten, the stalks limp, and the grass had taken over. A neighbor suggested digging it up, but I decided to back up our manure spreader to the rotted pile of strawy manure by the barn and heap it on the patch. The neighbor was convinced that I had killed the plants, but I didn’t give up.
The following spring, I walked under the willows to see if there were any signs of life. To my surprise, I found two neat rows of healthy, growing rhubarb, with little fat pointed reddish buds. The plants were taller than my waist, with large leaves and thick stalks. The rhubarb shaded the grass, and there was no grass in the row due to the mulch. Rhubarb thrives on compost and mulch, so give it some tender loving care, and it will reward you with a bountiful harvest for years to come.
Dividing healthy rhubarb plants is easy. If you want to expand your patch or share some with friends and family, simply use a shovel to cut the plant in half or take a piece from the side. Rhubarb roots are hardy, and with proper care, a piece with a leaf bud on it is almost sure to grow.
The best part of growing rhubarb is that it has very few pests. I have never had a problem with bugs or worms, and animals won’t touch it. You won’t need to spray or protect it from critters. Rhubarb is an easy, tasty, and versatile plant that can also be used for decorative purposes. It makes a beautiful contrast to brightly colored flowers and is a lovely addition to flower beds and foundation plantings.
To harvest rhubarb, wait until after a rainfall or watering, then grab a sharp knife and approach a plant. Pull the stalk down low and quickly whack off the bottom and leaves. Drop the leaves on the path to make instant mulch that will prevent weeds. Carry a basket or box and cut as much as needed for your recipes. A pie usually requires three or four stalks, while 10 pounds of rhubarb are needed for a batch of baked or canned rhubarb.
If you need to store rhubarb before canning, place it in the fridge or stand it in a few inches of cold water to keep it hydrated, but don’t submerge the stalks. Cut off the very bottoms of the stalks when you use them as they tend to split and curl quickly.
Don’t pull all the stalks from one plant; leave the smaller ones intact and take only the largest. Cut off any flowering stalks as soon as they appear as they will make the plant stop producing new stalks and leaves. You can continue harvesting rhubarb as long as it remains tender, but as the weather gets hotter, the stalks will become tough and woody. When this happens, the harvest season is over, and the plant needs to store up food for the winter.
When it comes to rhubarb, my mind always jumps straight to pie. After months of canned fruits, there’s nothing like the taste of a fresh fruit pie. While strawberry-rhubarb is a common favorite, my family’s go-to recipe is our classic rhubarb meringue. As luck would have it, springtime yields a bountiful rhubarb harvest just as our chickens are laying their finest eggs, providing us with endless tasty opportunities.
If you’re looking for a more traditional option, a strawberry-rhubarb pie is a great choice. To make it, simply line a 9-inch pie pan with pastry for a 2-crust pie, then combine sugar and flour in a small bowl. Add in 2 cups of fresh rhubarb cut into ½ inch pieces and 2 cups of fresh strawberries (cutting larger strawberries as needed). Pour the mixture into the pie crust, dot with butter, and top with another crust. Sprinkle sugar on top and cut vent holes before baking at 350°F for 50 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with ice cream.
If you’re in the mood for something different, rhubarb cake is a tasty option. Toss 2 cups of rhubarb cut into ½-inch pieces with 1 cup of sugar, then dump the mixture into the bottom of a greased, floured 9 x 12 cake pan. Spread evenly and add batter from a white, yellow, or strawberry cake mix. Bake at 350°F until done and serve warm with whipped topping.
Despite the fact that summer heat can make rhubarb tough and stringy, there’s no need to give up on this versatile ingredient. Canned rhubarb can be used in all your favorite recipes, just like fresh rhubarb. To make it, cut rhubarb into 1-inch lengths without removing the skin, then place it in a large roaster pan and add 1 cup of sugar for each quart of rhubarb. Cover the pan and bake until tender, then pack into hot jars and process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes. Rhubarb sauce is also great over ice cream or oatmeal in the winter.
Rhubarb makes great jam and jelly, but my family’s favorite is the old-fashioned rhubarb conserve. To make it, wash 5 pounds of rhubarb stalks, cut them into pieces, and cover with boiling water. Drain after 5 minutes and add 8 cups of sugar, 3 cups of weak vinegar, grated rind and juice of 2 oranges, ½ tsp. cinnamon, 2 cups of raisins (ground in a meat grinder), and 2 cups of chopped walnuts. Cook slowly until thick, stirring frequently to avoid scorching, then pour into sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes. Use the conserve and jam on cookies or as a meat glaze.
Lastly, you can also dehydrate rhubarb by slicing the stalks into pieces about ½-inch thick and boiling them for 5 minutes. Lay them in a single layer on your dehydrator trays or on a brown grocery bag laid on a cookie sheet in your oven with only the pilot light on or set at the very lowest setting with the door open. Once they’re dry and hard, you can re-hydrate them by soaking them in boiling water until tender and adding sugar to make rhubarb sauce, or use them as you would fresh. Overall, rhubarb is a versatile and delicious addition to any garden.
Recommended resources for preppers and homesteaders:
How to build an underground cellar for less than $400
Food Storage Plan For The Long Run
How To make an air fountain to obtain water from the air