Rhubarb has an interesting history. Native to Asia, it has been used as medicine there for a very long time. The plants grew wild along the Volga River. It is said that some early Americans consumed the leaves, but paid for it with their lives because they didn't know that the leaves and roots of rhubarb are toxic to humans. Only the leaf stem or petiole is edible. Not surprisingly the use of rhubarb for culinary purposes was apparently abandoned until someone discovered many years later that they had eaten the wrong part of the plant. On the other hand, historians tell us that rhubarb was so highly regarded as medicine by Chinese that they considered it too valuable to share with the common rabble in Europe.
Rhubarb is a versatile and beautiful perennial plant that does well in ornamental and vegetable gardens from USDA climate zone 8 and upward. The large leaves are bold in appearance, and the colorful petioles (red, pink or light green) are very attractive. Even if not eaten, it would be worth growing in the landscape or containers.
Choose a site in full sun with rich, well-drained soil where the plants can be left to grow for decades. Partial shade is allowable but not preferable. Soil pH should range between 5.8 and 6.8. I recommend taking a soil sample to your local Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service for testing. Call them for instructions and fees.
When the soil has warmed and danger of frost is past, cultivate the soil deeply and well. Add lots of composted organic matter and any other soil amendments that the soil test result indicates. Once planted, you won't have an opportunity to cultivate the soil so well again. Do it right the first time.
Though the plants you purchase commercially may seem small (usually no more than one and a half inches long), they will grow large if well-maintained. Plant each rhubarb about three feet apart. Dig a hole large enough in the soft soil to accommodate the roots without crowding. You may make a cone-shaped mound in the bottom of the hole and spread the roots over it. The buds should be a couple of inches below the soil surface. Gently press the soil over the plant and water well, taking care not to wash the soil away from the crown.
When new growth appears, begin adding composted mulch or straw around the plants. This will help to conserve moisture, prevent erosion and suppress weeds. Provide at least one inch of water per week during the growing season if rainfall is not adequate. Weed frequently. Remove seed stalks when they appear.
When the plants die back in the fall, add composted mulch. Add more composted mulch in the spring. Repeat the process every year.
Resist the temptation to sample your rhubarb the first year. The plants need to become well-established. They are prevented from doing so if the leaves and stalks are removed. You may harvest a few petioles the second year if you must. Take plenty the next year and thereafter. Petioles are ready for harvesting when they are about three fourths of an inch to one inch wide.
Rhubarb has a pleasingly tart taste, especially when sweetened. It should be noted that rhubarb became more popular in North America when sugar became readily available and cheap.
Its called "pie plant" for good reason as it ends up in pies more often than not. But rhubarb can also be used in breads and other baked goods, drinks, and as vegetable entrees or side dishes along with various meats. Remember: only the leaf petiole is edible; the leaves and roots are toxic to humans.
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