All About Rhubarb Plants

It takes about three years, but rhubarb plants will thrive once established and provide tart, tasty stalks for a decare or more.


| March/April 1989



rhubarb plants - stalks of rhubarb

Rhubarb plants, with their red or red and green stalks, can add a tart accent to a wide variety of foods.


PHOTO: MURRAY ALCOSER

Your won’t have to spend all winter and half the following summer yearning for freshly picked, homegrown fruit once you put in a rhubarb patch. Though rhubarb plants are actually a perennial vegetable, its fruity-tasting stalks can be transformed into delicious pies, sauces, jams, jellies, and conserves. They can also be baked or stewed and used as a topping for hot cereal or to add a special zing when mixed with other cooked fruit. The sweetened juice makes a refreshing cold drink, and the pulverized stems, fermented with sugar, will produce an interesting wine.

Curiously, despite its being delicious, low in calories and fat, and a good source of vitamin A, potassium and some vitamin C, rhubarb was slow to reach the dinner table. The type known as Rheum officinale has been cultivated in China and Tibet for medicinal purposes for nearly 3,000 years, but Rheum rhaponticum, the parent plant of most of the rhubarb we eat today, is thought to have originated in the Volga River region of Siberia, and wasn't introduced to Europe until the 17th century. From there, it eventually made its way to this country, where it became commonly known as "pie plant."

Types and Tastes

This hardy perennial grows two to four feet tall, sporting enormous green leaves on strong red, green, or reddish green stalks. Both its leaves and roots contain oxalic acid, which is poisonous, so only the stems (properly called petioles) should be eaten.

Few people bother to grow rhubarb from seed, since doing so would add yet another year to the three usually required to produce the first good harvest. However, should you decide to go this route, you'll probably be most successful with an old-fashioned, very tart variety called Victoria, whose green stalks are blushed with red. (When starting with seeds, sow them one inch deep outdoors in April, thin the seedlings to six inches apart, and then establish them in a permanent bed in the fall.)

For a quicker, more reliable harvest, plant the fleshy root divisions called crowns, or corms. You'll find them available from many local and mail-order nurseries or from a rhubarb-growing fellow gardener who is dividing old plants. Just make sure each crown has two well-formed "eyes" or buds.

Canada Red rhubarb is one of the more popular varieties. Its heavy, juicy stalks are tender and are bright red inside and out. They keep their color when cooked, too, making them perfect for canning or freezing. Furthermore, the plant is slow to go to seed. Valentine is another sweet type that requires very little sugar to make it delicious, but MacDonald is sweeter still. Its big, bright red, flavorful stalks will produce sauces and pies with a deep pink hue. It's also unnecessary to scrape or peel MacDonald's tender stalks — a definite advantage, since there are many nutrients in the stalks' outer surfaces. Gardeners who prefer a tarter variety should try Flare, whose stems may be red or green.

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12/14/2013 11:45:42 AM

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