You probably already know whether or not you like rhubarb - at least to eat. But who can resist growing a beautiful plant with poisonous leaves, and a name linked to ancient barbarians?
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a herbaceous perennial with short, thick rhizomes that produce large, roughly triangular or heart-shaped, crinkled leaves on green or red-tinted stalks. In cold climates, rhubarb is one of the earliest edible plants to appear in late winter.
Though grown for thousands of years in Asia as a medicinal plant, it was not considered edible until the 1600s - and then only because common folks could finally afford to buy enough sugar to make rhubarb’s tartly acidic leaf stalks edible. The long petioles (leaf stems) can be cut and used in pies, jams, jellies, sauces and juice, especially when combined with sweet strawberries, raspberries, apples and other fruits.
Still, there’s no middle ground on it’s super-tart taste - you either like its acidic bite, or you don’t.
Colorful stems are available in supermarkets much of the year from commercial growers using special greenhouse techniques, but from late spring through mid summer garden rhubarb is easy to harvest from home-grown plants.
The cold-tolerant plant - which requires at least a couple of months of cold weather to grow well - tolerates most soils but grows best on fertile, well-drained soils or raised beds that are high in organic matter - lots of compost worked into the soil. For large leaves fertilize lightly in spring and mid-summer, water during extreme dry spells, and cultivate lightly to keep weeds from competing for nutrients and water.
Nostalgic “rhubarbarians” who live along the Gulf Coast or in the Southwest find that if their favored pie plant survives at all, it usually has only thin, spindly, faded leaves and wilts when temperatures stay in the 90s; overcompensating with extra water can cause crown rot.
But a Mississippi friend has a little success growing rhubarb on the east side of his house, where the plants get morning sun but are protected from hot afternoon sun and radiated evening heat. Raised beds give the extra drainage the plants will need during summer watering; mulches also help keep the crowns cool in the summer, and protected from cold wind in the winter.
Grow Your Own
Rhubarb plants are so ridiculously easy to grow and share, a friend of mine from Iowa once said that “anyone who doesn’t have a ‘pie plant’ doesn’t have any friends.”
Rhubarb grows easily from seed, but takes longer to mature and the results are iffy at best. Better to purchase already-grown named varieties, or get a “start” from someone whose plant you admire. Common varieties of rhubarb plants include Canada Red, MacDonald, Cherry Red, and a robust variety with sweet, green stalks named Victoria.
Within a few years, rhubarb crowns become crowded, resulting in small, tough, nearly inedible stalks. Dig and divide older plants in the early spring, when plants are beginning to grow so you know where the good bits are. Some gardeners dig entire clumps to make dividing easier, others just use a sharp shovel to slice down through the in-ground crown and remove chunks of rhizomes big enough to include a portion of crown with several leaf stalks or buds, and plenty of roots. Replant the divisions a couple of inches below the soil surface, spacing plants at least three feet apart, then mulch the plants and water to get them established.
From spring through mid-summer, harvest fully-developed leaves by pulling and snapping the stalks away from the base of the crown - just like separating celery stems. Leave at least half the plant every season (especially the first season), so the plant can replenish itself.
Finally, whether or not you like its taste, rhubarb is quite showy on its own, including in the late summer when topped with small flower clusters. It is hard to beat as a beautiful plant that does double-duty as a coarse-textured landscape specimen that you can eat as well.