Plant Profile: Rhubarb

When the weather starts warming up and the gardens begin to green up, it’s time to harvest rhubarb. One of the few vegetable garden perennials in the North, rhubarb is used as a fruit by most gardeners. The flavor is tart, tart, tart but because it comes so early in the year, it’s beloved by northerners who are happy to add the sugar needed to make it delectable.

Check out my Best Ever Rhubarb Bars for a delicious way to use the fruit.

sun shining through rhubarb leaf

Rhubarb leaves are pretty, but inedible.

Rhubarb is a member of the polygonaceae family and is a relative of knotweed and buckwheat. It looks like a rosy celery and the fresh stalks are the only edible part of the plant. The leaves contain oxalic acid, and while they make great forms for concrete garden stepping stones, they are poisonous.

Growing rhubarb is easy — in fact, it’s very hard to kill once it is happily settled in your garden.

Most people will get a section of rhubarb from a friend or buy one at the nursery because rhubarb is difficult to grow from seed. Plant your transplant in a sunny, relatively rich area of the garden. (I had great luck growing rhubarb on the site of a former compost pile.) The plants can get large, so be sure to space your rhubarb 3 to 4 feet apart. Add well-aged manure or compost to the planting hole to give it a good start and be sure to water it well the first year or so. Mulching around the plant is recommended.

It’s best not to harvest any stalks the first two years. After that, you will have a harvest season of 6 weeks or more. To pull stalks, grab them at the base and twist them away from the plant. You can also cut them if they don’t come off easily. If the stalks get thin, it’s time to stop harvesting and give the plant a chance to reinvigorate itself.

rhubarb bars in pan with candle

These rhubarb bars are crazy good — like a rhubarb custard pie in a crumble crust.

Northern cooks have lots of recipes for rhubarb: strawberry/rhubarb pie, rhubarb crumble, rhubarb sauce, even pork chops with rhubarb. Try them all and enjoy this late spring wonder!

2 Comments

  1. Annemieke Mantorville on May 24, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Thanks Mary,
    My two rhubarb plants always had plenty of sun but our neighbor’s trees are growing big… the plants now get about 5 hours of full sun. Should I transplant them or leave them? We’re in SE Minnesota and they’re looking happy and are still growing (one is about 5 years old and a good size; the other is now in its 3rd year). My goal this year is to make a nice sweet and spicy rhubarb chutney!

    • Mary Lahr Schier on May 24, 2018 at 1:35 pm

      Rhubarb is pretty tough, and if the sun is midday, they probably are fine. If you have space in a sunny spot, you certainly could move them, especially the smaller one. Just give them adequate water after they are transplanted. Chutney sounds delicious!

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