by Rebecca Horwitz
It’s rhubarb season again! That perennial favorite of pie-bakers, rhubarb is used like a fruit but is technically a vegetable. A cool weather plant, it’s only available in spring before hot weather arrives. Rhubarb does well in our climate here in the Hudson Valley and in the North in general. Following are some basic tips for how to grow it yourself, as well as ideas for what to do with it.
Did you know that rhubarb was originally cultivated for medicinal properties? According to the Rhubarb Compendium website, its origins date back to China in 2700 BC. Even today the roots are dried and used in Chinese medicine. It is used as an antiseptic, antitumor, and an astringent tonic for the digestive system. Used topically, rhubarb root is said to be useful for the treatment of burns. It is made into teas, tonics and elixirs for various purposes.
|Rhubarb’s renowned red stalk.
Unless you are lucky enough to find it already established in your back yard, you will need to buy crowns, or divisions, of rhubarb at your local nursery or garden center. It is not as common to grow it from seed. When ready to plant, know that rhubarb is a hardy and un-fussy plant, tolerant of most soils although it prefers a well-drained, fertile and slightly acidic soil for optimal growth. A shovelful or two of composted manure is helpful to get it started. Make sure that the planting area is cleared of weeds. To avoid crowding multiple rhubarb plants, space them about 36 inches apart in your garden.
Growing rhubarb will require patience and a long-term vision. You should not harvest anything for the first year after planting, and not much the second year. The plant needs that time to build up nutrient reserves in the roots, which allows it to produce stronger and thicker stems. In the meantime, you can investigate the many culinary uses of rhubarb. It’s worth the wait! Once your rhubarb plant is established, it can keep producing year after year for up to 15 years. And you’ll be glad to know that rhubarb has very few pest or disease problems in the home garden; no chemicals necessary.
While waiting for your own rhubarb plants to mature, you will likely find some ready for purchase at local farmers’ markets and some local stores.
From the third year on, you’ll be able to harvest the famed red stalks, but be careful not to take more than one-third to one-half. The plant needs some stalks to preserve enough foliage. Notice that only the stalks are eaten; the leaves are considered poisonous.
By the time a rhubarb crown is about six years old, it can be dug up and divided to create new plants! No need to return to the garden center. This should be done in early spring. For more information about how to divide plants, or any other gardening question, contact the Master Gardener Program of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Kingston at their Horticulture Hotline: 845-340-DIRT. These folks are a well-trained and helpful resource on all things garden.
And now for the fun part: what to do with all this fresh, tangy rhubarb? If your first thought is to put it in a pie with strawberries, you’re not alone. This is probably the most well-known and popular way to cook the rhubarb stalk. But a quick Internet search will yield an incredibly wide range of recipes, from the Rhubarb Compendium to Martha Stewart. At the Rhubarb Compendium website, you will find ideas for rhubarb bars, breads, cakes, cobblers, cookies, drinks, jams, muffins, pickles, pies, puddings, sauces, salad dressings, soups, tarts, and wines!
The recipe that most caught my fancy was Martha Stewart’s Strawberry Rhubarb Sangria—the perfect thing for a spring or early summer garden party.
• 2 rhubarb stalks, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1/2 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 orange)
• 1 orange, halved and cut into 1/4-inch slices
• 1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
• 4 cups (32 ounces) chilled seltzer
• 1 bottle (750 ml) chilled sparkling wine, such as Champagne or Prosecco
In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water. Bring to a boil, add rhubarb. Transfer mixture to a medium heatproof bowl and let cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pitcher or large bowl, combine orange juice, orange, and strawberries. To serve, add cooled rhubarb mixture, seltzer, sparkling wine, and ice.