Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a classic spring perennial that is long lived and easy to care for once it’s established. New plants, or crowns, are best planted in spring, for harvest the following year.
Rhubarb is unusual in that only the stalks of the plant are edible. The leaves contain the toxin oxalic acid plus at least one other unidentified toxin, and should never be ingested. The roots have been used for thousands of years as a laxative, but this is not a recommended practice for the average person. It’s the stalks of rhubarb that make is a much loved plant.
The stalks are thick and textured much like celery with a very tart flavor. Cooked with sweetener, and often a fruit such as strawberry, it’s used widely in pies and desserts. Rhubarb came to the United States during the 1800’s, but was enjoyed in
Gardeners often find an out of the way location for rhubarb since it’s a large plant that takes up at least a 3 foot by 3 foot area. The flower stalks can reach up to five foot tall, so it’s a very large plant. However, one plant is enough to supply a family.
Rhubarb does best in fertile soil that has been worked 10-12 inches deep and is free of weeds, especially larger perennial weeds that will steal nutrients. The plants should receive full sun, and will benefit from compost worked into the soil as well. Rhubarb is a very long lived perennial, so if the location suits the plant, it won’t need to be divided for years; anywhere from five to fifteen years. You’ll know when the time is right to divide and replant when the stalks start to reduce in size.
Plant rhubarb in the spring, and do not harvest the stalks during the first season. It can be harvested the second year but it should be done sparingly to give the plant more time to become established. Patience will reward the gardener with large, juicy stalks of rhubarb.
Horseradish makes a good companion crop to rhubarb, as both are long-lived perennials. My grandparents grew rhubarb in the back of the garage where it was partially in shade but still had a good amount of sun year round. My grandmother made jam and pies each year. She preferred a tart taste and used less sugar than many cooks tend to use in their rhubarb dishes.
Crimson Red Rhubarb is a 2012 taste-test winner from Burpee. It yields non-stringy, 24 inch stalks, and does well in Zones 3 through 8.
Victoria Rhubarb is also available from Burpee. It has long been a customer favorite and is considered the best variety for cooking. It’s a bit sweeter and milder than other varieties with slender green stalks that have a red blush.
Stalks are slender and very tender, so it’s quick and easy to fix for the pot. Plants are prolific; stalks green with red blush. Dust off your pie tins for this one. Victoria prefers full sun and has a spread of two feet.
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