By Jan Cashman
Grandmothers in the northern U.S. called rhubarb the “Pie Plant”. Rhubarb pies taste wonderful (rhubarb is often combined with strawberries) but you can make other desserts with rhubarb besides pies. I make a simple rhubarb sauce by dicing the rhubarb, cooking it in a small amount of water till soft, and stirring in sugar (½ cup or so per cup of rhubarb). Serve warm as a side dish or use as a delicious ice cream topping. A friend gave me another old-time recipe called Rhubarb Shrub which her mother used to make (see recipe below). Rhubarb, with its large leaves and tall stature, can also be used as a focal point in your perennial flower bed.
Rhubarb (Rheum) is native to central Asia. The Chinese have used rhubarb roots for medicinal purposes for 5000 years. In 1271, on one of his trips to the Orient, Marco Polo found it and brought it back to Europe, again for medicinal use. In 1770 when he was in London Benjamin Franklin sent rhubarb to North America to be used as a medicinal for digestion, circulation, and to reduce pain. In the 1600’s, the French discovered rhubarb stalks to be edible. I found on the internet that rhubarb roots can even be used for hair dye.
Rhubarb stalks contain many nutrients—rhubarb is an excellent source of Calcium. It also contains Vitamins K, C, A and other minerals. The red varieties contain more anti-oxidants than the green-stemmed. But, beware, the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous—they contain high levels of oxalic acid.
There are around 60 species of rhubarb and many hybrids but only a few varieties are grown for sale in garden centers. Chipman’s Canada Red is the variety most available to us; it is sweet with red stems. In the 1970’s we purchased an old variety called Ruby Red from a seller in Minnesota. Although we can no longer find a supplier who grows Ruby Red, we still have these productive plants with dark red stems in our garden. Occasionally we divide our Ruby Red and sell some. It is believed by many gardeners and cooks that red-stemmed rhubarb is sweeter than the green-stemmed varieties.
Easy-to- grow rhubarb should be planted in well-drained soil in full sun. Choose the location carefully because a rhubarb plant can live in the same spot for 25 years or more. Amend soil when planting with compost or other organic matter. Rhubarb is sold as “crowns” or root divisions. Plant the root just below the ground’s surface. Fertilize your rhubarb plant in the spring with a well-balanced fertilizer and give it plenty of water. Keep the area around the plant weed free.
I break off the tall central seed head on the plant, so all the plant’s energy goes towards stem production and not seed. Wait to harvest for the first year or two after you plant to allow the root to mature. Rhubarb is one of the first plants in the spring to harvest. Do not cut the stalks, but pull them so you don’t leave a place for disease to enter.
Plant a rhubarb plant (just one will give you lots). It’s deer-proof, easy, good to eat (if you add sugar), and good for you, too!
OLD-FASHIONED RHUBARB SHRUB
1½-2 cups diced rhubarb
2 cups diced bread (any kind) 1 cup sugar
½ cup butter
Place rhubarb and bread cubes in bottom of baking pan. Top with sugar and butter. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour.