June 24th, 2011
Are you a big wuss when it comes to the sweet/tart taste of rhubarb? Or do your childhood memories include a sojourn to Mom’s garden, stolen cup of sugar in hand, and chomping down on a bright red stalk?
As America returns to growing our own food, rhubarb is back in vogue. One of the few perennial vegetables, it’s an easy plant for those who don’t know diddly-squat about edible gardening. Not into the Zen of hiding, rhubarb is both ginormous and forgiving. Give it good garden soil, lots of sun and adequate moisture, and it’ll reward you with a bounteous crop which you can cobble, fool, pie and crisp to your family’s content. Don’t consume the leaves, though. They’re full of poisonous oxalic acid. Place them in the compost pile for safe decomposition, or mince in water and use as a natural spray against aphids.
Prepare a permanent bed for your rhubarb. Remember, you won’t be tilling or necessarily digging in amendments yearly. Start rhubarb from seed, or ask a gardening pal for a piece of their plant. Or visit Hollandia Nursery in Bethel; they carry both ‘MacDonald’ and ‘Tilden’.
Rhubarb is ready to harvest in early May. Twist off finger-size stems at the base, but never take more than half of any one plant, and finish harvesting by midsummer. Try rhubarb’s zippy signature combined with raspberries, apples and other fruits, which enhance the intense flavor. It’s also a marvelous sauce for chicken, venison, or halibut. If you’re overrun with bounty, cut the stems into chunks and pop into a Ziploc bag. Freeze for that dreary day when you need a tart taste of spring.
Care of rhubarb plants is a breeze. It’s generally pest-free, though slugs may damage leaves. Division is in early spring, and it transplants well, but be prepared for long, tough roots. Top-dress annually with compost.
With its big heart- shaped crinkled leaves and red tinted stalks, rhubarb is showy enough to qualify for a spot in the display garden. Mine grows in the midst of an ornamental bed, and I let it go to seed. The statuesque stalk bears a long-lasting white inflorescence and always elicits a “What the heck IS that?” from visitors. The seed shoot doesn’t hurt the plant’s vigor, but I sometimes have to deal with a promiscuous scattering of baby rhubarbs come spring.
This lowly plant was first used in Europe in the 16th century, imported from Arabia. Marco Polo also brought Chinese rhubarb to the west. The attractive vegetable appears in America around the time of Independence and has continued to be a mainstay in the cool north.
My rhubarb, an unknown cultivar originally from the Canadian childhood home of a dear friend, moved with me to CT. Not only has it kept me in crisps, sauces and cobblers for almost 20 years, but each April, when it springs once more to life, it brings to mind times gone by. Both in my garden, and in life.