Tart and big, there is no vegetable quite like rhubarb! Easy to grow in winter climates, this vegetable is a wonderful spring surprise. Learn the ins and outs of the rhubarb plant including how to grow and care for it, as well as how to enjoy its sour, delicious flavour.
It’s rhubarb season! Soon, the farmer’s markets will be brimming with stalks of brilliant red and pink rhubarb. Some people hate this tart, strange veggie, but I think its brilliance really shines through when you add a little sugar. Like sour candy, it can really hit the spot!
Plus, it is so versatile. People may know it most for strawberry rhubarb pie, but this veggie can be an ingredient in everything from delicious drinks to sorbet. A simple, low-maintenance plant, the real question is why aren’t you growing rhubarb yet?
What is Rhubarb?
The rhubarb plant is a vegetable with big leaves and red stalks that are similar looking to celery. A perennial plant, it is one of the first vegetables that can be harvested in the spring. As a member of the Polygonaceae family, garden rhubarb’s scientific name is Rheum rhabarbarum.
Is Rhubarb Toxic?
You may have heard rumblings about the toxicity of rhubarb. So, is rhubarb poisonous? Technically the answer is yes and no. The stalks, which are what you will find in all rhubarb recipes, are completely safe to eat cooked and raw (though they will be very tart when eaten raw).
The leaves, however, should not be ingested as they contain oxalic acid, a chemical that can lead to kidney problems. That being said, don’t panic if a piece of a leaf makes its way into your harvested rhubarb. Only eating the leaves in whole will make you feel sick.
Is Rhubarb a Fruit or Vegetable?
Another interesting rumour about rhubarb is whether or not it is a fruit. Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but in the USA it is legally a fruit. This is because a New York court ruled in 1947 that rhubarb was a fruit because it was most commonly cooked as one. As silly as it is, the confusion remains to this day!
The Benefits of Rhubarb
Native to central Asia, the rhubarb plant has been used for its medicinal purposes for over 5,000 years in China and was also commonly used by Arabs, Greeks, and Romans during ancient times. Today, it is most commonly sweetened and eaten in desserts.
In terms of nutrition, rhubarb is a great source of vitamin K, which helps with bone health (and preventing osteoporosis) and blood clotting. The antioxidants found in rhubarb have anti-inflammatory effects and help with heart health.
You will also find a ton of fibre in rhubarb. It can work as a natural laxative to help get things moving digestion-wise.
How to Grow A Rhubarb Plant
A relatively easy plant to care for, you can enjoy homegrown rhubarb a year after you begin it from seed. It is important to note that rhubarb needs a cold winter in order to grow. Temperatures should drop below 4° C (40° F) in the winter and average 24° C in the summer (75° F), or be hardy in zones 2-9.
You CAN sow rhubarb seeds, but it’s a long process before it’s ready to harvest. If you so desire, you start seeds indoors seeds in April. This is what I do in my Vancouver BC Garden. Then transplant (or direct sow) the seedlings into the ground mid-May. Space rhubarb four feet apart, but know that one rhubarb plant is often enough for one household. Note, you won’t be able to harvest your first year of growing from seed.
Better yet, buy a rhubarb crown to plant in the early spring once the ground is workable. You want to ensure the roots of the plant are still dormant and new growth hasn’t begun. You can also plant your crowns in the fall once the plant is dormant again. This is often the case with divisions from neighbours or friends.
Rhubarb Care Requirements
Rhubarb likes full sun, so make sure you plant them in a bright spot to thrive. They also LOVE a lot of water during the summer. Without which, they may get stressed and bolt. To help them retain moisture, apply new mulch every fall around the base of the plant.
Since rhubarb is such a big plant, they need lots of nutrients and organic matter in order to reach full size. Fertilize with a high-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring once the ground has begun to thaw. Add some nice, well-rotted compost in the spring, along with worm castings if you have them ready.
Whenever you see flower stalks appear, remove them as soon as possible, the plant is bolting, meaning it’s in a hurry to set seed and reproduce.
In terms of pests, the rhubarb is fairly hardy. Slugs and snails do chomp away at the leaves, but it will generally withstand the damage. Avoid pests by weeding the hiding spaces surrounding your rhubarb frequently.
The rhubarb stalks can be bright pink, red, or even green. Unlike fruit, the colour of the stalk does not represent ripeness. The stalks can be cut anywhere from February to April, depending on your area. Do not harvest during the first year of growth so that the plant can reestablish.
Harvest all the stalks at once if you plan on using them in recipes or freeze or cut them as you need them. Harvesting rhubarb requires a special twist, so visit my step-by-step guide here.
How to Enjoy Rhubarb
Straight from the plant, rhubarb is very tart. You might notice your mouth pucker up with one bite! Most people won’t eat it raw, and if they do, they cover it with sugar first. Most traditionally, people will cook rhubarb before they eat it.
How to Freeze Rhubarb
With rhubarb season being so short, freezing rhubarb is one of the best ways to enjoy the flavour for a few more months. To get your rhubarb ready for the freezer, wash the stalk thoroughly to remove any dirt and grit. Discard all leaves from the rhubarb plant since we know our body will NOT like them.
Pat your rhubarb dry with a towel and then slice into pieces about an inch thick. This next step, blanching, is optional but will help the rhubarb retain its bright colour. To blanch, drop the rhubarb into a pot of boiling water for one minute and one minute only. Drain the rhubarb and rinse with cold water to stop any further cooking. Dry the rhubarb.
Your rhubarb is ready to freeze! Place in freezer bags or Mason jars labelled with the date. If you already have a recipe in mind for your rhubarb, you can pre-measure your rhubarb amounts and freeze them that way. Your rhubarb should last for one year, carrying you right to the next rhubarb season.
Rhubarb Recipes to Try
Most often, rhubarb is paired with strawberries for a range of desserts. This is because strawberries are often ripe around the same time as the rhubarb plant. Plus, the sweetness of strawberries helps balance out the tartness of the rhubarb in recipes.
Luckily, there are quite a few ways to enjoy rhubarb beyond the traditional (and delicious) strawberry rhubarb pie. Here are a few of my favourites.
Made of rhubarb syrup, this fun drink gives a tart tang and pink tinge to the classic lemonade.
If pie isn’t your dessert of choice, give this rhubarb crisp from Attainable Sustainable a try for a filling group dessert.
If you really want to go for it, top your rhubarb crisp with homemade rhubarb sorbet. Or, make it to enjoy all on its own!
A new take on the classic pairing, this soda from Grow Forage Cook Ferment drink satisfies the sweet, tart desire on a spring day.
Coffee and rhubarb is the combination I never knew I needed. Find this recipe for rhubarb coffee cake over on Attainable Sustainable.
Another wonderful recipe from Grow Forage Cook Ferment, this butter is a tasty treat on top of toast or crackers.
Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work planting rhubarb.