By Barbara Fahs, Garden Guides Contributor
Classified as a vegetable, rhubarb makes the sweetest pies! Rheum rhabarbarum is the common garden rhubarb, known for its tart-tasting stems. Rhubarb is a perennial plant, native to Asia, which was used medicinally by the ancient Mongolians and Chinese. Rhubarb's use as a food is fairly recent,it began to be eaten in seventeenth century England after the introduction of sugar.
If you live in the northern United States or Canada, you're in prime rhubarb-growing country. If you live in a more southern climate, you can grow rhubarb as an annual. It prefers rich, well-drained soils. If your soil is a bit acidic, rhubarb will respond well. Prepare rows that are 3 or 4 feet apart and dig in lots of composted leaves or well-rotted manure. Raised beds work especially well for rhubarb.
Rhubarb is often one of the first crops that is ready to harvest in the early spring. The stalks, or petioles, are stewed with sugar and make delicious pies, jams, tarts and crumbles. It can have a laxative effect, much like eating too many prunes, so limit yourself to 1 piece of pie! Its perennial nature means that rhubarb plants will live for up to 15 years.
Choosing a Variety
Although we usually think of rhubarb as having red stems, it also comes in a variety of colors. Green-stemmed varieties can be more productive, yielding more stalks. Victoria rhubarb is a prolific green-stemmed variety known for its sweetness. Among other varieties are Canada Red, Egyptian Queen, German Wine and Hawke's Champagne.
Rhubarb is easy to grow from roots, which you plant in the early spring. Mature plants can spread up to 4 feet and attain a height of 3 feet, so allow enough space for them to spread. After you prepare your rhubarb patch, plant roots at least 2 feet apart and bury the crown bud at least 2 inches deep. Filling the planting hole with compost is a great help to nourish your plants. Firm the soil lightly and then water after you plant.
Rhubarb requires a fair amount of water, so keep the soil around your plants moist. Mulching can help to conserve water and retain moisture. When your plants begin flowering, remove the flower stalks as soon as you see them. But rhubarb is hardy, so you won't need to fuss over your plants to ensure a successful harvest.
Harvesting and Storing Rhubarb
Do not pick any stalks the first year. During its second fall of growth, harvest rhubarb before the first frost. (The frost causes the oxalic acid content of the plants to migrate to the leaves, which can lead to unpleasant stomach irritation.) Cut stalks at the soil or pull them out. You can harvest a few stalks at a time, or all of the stalks at once; this will not kill the plant. Cut the leaves off, wash the stalks and store in sealed plastic bags in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. You can also can or freeze rhubarb.