I remember as a kid in the 70s breaking off stalks of rhubarb from the edge of the garden and biting into its long, slender stems warmed by the sunshine. My friend, Dennis, and I would challenge one another to take a big bite and not scrunch up our faces in a big pucker. Sour as heck! Still, even then, I appreciated the unique flavor of rhubarb. Not quite as harsh as biting into a lemon wedge and with a bit more of an earthy, nuanced flavor.
We always had a patch of rhubarb at both my childhood homes. Rhubarb is an easy, pass-along plant. Early in the spring when the wrinkled red balls of leaves just begin to emerge, long before their large elephant-ear leaves unfurl, all you’ve got to do is dig your spade in and cut off a chunk of its rhizomatous base. Rhubarb will grow practically anywhere but it does appreciate full sun and somewhat sandy loam. This past weekend, I finally made good on a 3-year old promise to former ELF editor, Sarah, and dug a division for her.
According to highaltituderhubarb.com, rhubarb has been in cultivation for medicinal purpose for more than 5,000 years. Ancient Romans imported the root of rhubarb from barbaric lands beyond the Vogue River which was also known as the Rha River. The early name for rhubarb was rha. Since it came from barbarians from across the Rha River, rhubarb eventually became known as rhabarbarum which is the Latin name for the rhubarb plant.
It’s only been in the last two centuries that rhubarb has been used as a foodstuff. Interestingly, it’s considered a dessert vegetable rather than a fruit. Not all parts of the plant are edible. In fact, the rhubarb leaves contain a high concentration of oxalic acid, an organic poison. The roots of the plant also contain the acid but the amount found in the edible stalks is insignificant and thus safe to eat. One article I read, though, warned against harvesting rhubarb stalks after a hard frost in late summer/early fall since the freeze and thawing can allow a toxic level of the oxalic acid to leach down from the leaves into the stems. Good to know! Especially since there’s a tendency for some fruits and vegetables to purportedly taste sweeter and richer after a frost. Not the rhubarb, though!
The most tender parts of the stem are the whitest which are the closest to the ground as they’ve yet to be toughened by the sun. Some harvesting practices during a rhubarb mania in Victorian times required cutting the stalks after dark to retain as much tenderness as possible. Most recipes involving rhubarb however, include a large amount of sugar which helps break down the fiber of the stalk as does a prolonged cooking time. Probably the most common use of rhubarb today is in pies and desserts. If you’ve never tried a strawberry rhubarb pie, put it on your list. The rhubarb retains just enough of its tartness to offset the strawberries and sugar, giving it a pleasant little bite.
So easy to grow, every gardener should give rhubarb a go. It’s also an attractive plant with its tall slender stalks and quite large leaves. Suitable for a vegetable garden, at the edge of a berry patch or even mixed amongst perennials, give it some room to show off and it can add the same structural element as an elephant ear or hosta. The striking red ribs of its stems and a somewhat otherworldly bloom that juts out just above the leaves are bonus points!