Making the Most of Rhubarb

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Rhubarb

From its Himalayan home in Tibet, rhubarb got a lift to Europe with Marco Polo, and was introduced in America around 1820. Hardy and resilient, rhubarb is now grown in temperate climates around the world. One of only a few perennial vegetables, rhubarb plants often produce for years with little care.

My rhubarb patch is comprised of six mostly green-stemmed plants rescued from an abandoned site a few years ago (not all rhubarb is red). Transplanted into fertile soil, the plants have thrived despite accidental crowding. The GrowVeg.com Garden Planner will suggest that you plant rhubarb crowns at least 3 feet (90 cm) apart, and I highly recommend following its advice. In most gardens, three widely spaced rhubarb plants will produce as well or better than five crowded into the same space.

Twice a week from April to June, I gather the stalks, taking about two stalks per plant at each cutting. I discard the leaves in my compost pile, though pest-plagued gardeners might consider using them to make an insecticidal tea. The leaves contain so much oxalic acid and anthraquinones that they are poisonous to eat, but a tea may make a good pest-deterrent spray. Rhubarb roots should be considered poisonous, too, unless used by a skilled practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.

Rhubarb flower bud
Rhubarb flower buds can be removed from the plant

Rhubarb plants often send up monstrous flower buds, which are considered a delicacy in parts of central Asia. I can find no information on the chemical properties of this particular plant part, so I compost the buds after cutting them off. Removing the flower stalks encourages the plants to use their energy to produce more gigantic leaves.

Rhubarb’s Dietary Dilemma

Rhubarb stems contain much less oxalic acid than the leaves, and little or no anthraquinone. So, they are safe to eat in reasonable quantities, and provide vitamins A and C. But eating too much rhubarb too often might not be a good idea because of possible stress to kidneys and inflammation of joints. It is estimated that an adult would need to eat several pounds of rhubarb to feel ill effects, with 20 to 25 pounds (9 to 11 kg ) of fresh rhubarb as a lethal dose.

Possible death by rhubarb is an entirely modern fear, because until refined sugar became cheap and widely available, rhubarb’s pungent sour flavour naturally kept people from eating too much. Limiting how much sugar you eat will limit your rhubarb intake, too. The sugar dilemma has also led me to rediscover several old uses for rhubarb, and maybe some new ones, too:

  • Rhubarb juice works as well as lemon or lime juice to prevent discolouration of apples, bananas, and other cut fruits. Fresh or frozen and thawed, small pieces of rhubarb smashed in a garlic press readily give up their juice.
  • Rhubarb may help prevent cancer when baked or stewed for 20 minutes. Adding slivers of candied ginger turns roasted rhubarb into a big-flavour condiment.
  • In a recent study, daily doses of rhubarb extract reduced hot flashes in menopausal women. Unlike other natural remedies, rhubarb extract does not contain oestrogen.
  • Rhubarb juice may be helpful as a weight loss aid. Ten years ago, a study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine found that a rhubarb supplement was as effective as fenfluramine (a then-popular diet drug that has since been taken off of the market because of cardiac side effects)in promoting weight loss.
Harvested rhubarb stalks

I like strawberry rhubarb pie as well as the next person, but rhubarb juice may be the tastiest way to help yourself to rhubarb’s health benefits. To make it, bring a quart (liter) of water to a boil, and add a handful of fresh or frozen rhubarb pieces (the equivalent of two stalks). Turn off the heat, and strain when cool. Sweeten just enough to make the rhubarb-ade drinkable, pour over ice, and add a sprig of mint. You have springtime in a glass.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"I like the juice with the addition of a vanilla pod and some fresh ginger at the cooling down stage. Yum Yum..."
Geoffrey on Saturday 1 May 2010
"Great idea, G, I will try it today! Forgot to mention...If I have them, I often add a few frozen blueberries or raspberries to give the rhubarb drink a nice, rosy color. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 1 May 2010
"Thanks for the informative article. I have been waiting for several weeks for the stalks to turn red. I did not know that some stay green. I planted two last year and they are about 2 feet apart. Looks like I will have more than we need."
Gael Squibb on Friday 7 May 2010
"Is it true you should not harvest rhubarb in its first year even if it has come from a mature plant?"
Sharon on Friday 7 May 2010
"My favorite combination pie is cherry-rhubarb, probably because my two favorite pies are cherry and rhubarb. I like the texture better than the strawberry, no seeds. The rhubarb freezes well and I can make pies all year long. When using frozen rhubarb I cook the filling in the microwave until it first starts to thicken, so it doesn't take so long to bake and the crust doesn't get soggy."
J Taylor on Saturday 8 May 2010
"Sharon, yes you shouldn't harvest rhubarb in the first year after you have transplanted it or have split the root system so that the plant can put all it's energy into establishing a good root system. However, if you find any stems rotting towards the end of the season they should be removed and placed on the compost heap. Last year I dug up my rhubarb, split the root in half with a spade, replanted it with some new compost and didn't pick any stems. This year it is doing very well as a result."
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 8 May 2010
"Hi Great tips I love making rhubard Crumble. Your tip for preventing hot flushes (for my wife, not me) - what do you class as an extract please?"
Rob on Saturday 8 May 2010
"Thanks for mentioning the rhubarb flowers. I have grown rhubarb in previous gardens and don't ever remember it flowering the way my present plants do. They're huge!!Like cauliflowers on sticks!! Didn't quite know what I was supposed to do with them but sheer luck - I cut them off and composted them as you said, Barbara. "
Sue on Sunday 9 May 2010
"Are they any good in pots? I have got mine in large pots and they are throwing up leaves but no stalks, bearing in mind this is their first year. Should i wait until next year or replant them in the garden? Any advice?"
Mandy on Sunday 9 May 2010
"Here it is the ultimate crumble recipie: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/strawberry-rhubarb-crumble-recipe.html"
Geoffrey on Sunday 9 May 2010
"Mandy, I think the sooner your plants go into the garden the better, because rhubarb often takes a bit of time settling in. You will also find your plants easier to care for in the garden compared to a container, because you bascially will have to do nothing at all. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 15 May 2010
"I planted 2 rhubarb plants last spring. I left them alone to mature, as recommended. I've been anticipating harvesting since the first green leaf appeared. The plants are doing great, but they had decided to flower. I was told that once the plants flower, that the stalks/fruit is no longer good to harvest or edible and that I should cut down all the stalks, discard, and basically start over. Is this true? Did my plants "expire" for harvesting?"
Kim Barry on Saturday 15 May 2010
"Kim, flowering does not make the stalks inedible. However, it weakens the plant so you may wish to harvest less to give the plant a chance to recover for next year."
Jeremy Dore on Tuesday 18 May 2010
"Last year, I found out that I shouldn't eat sugar - and I love rhubarb, which left me with a dilemma. There are 3 alternatives to sugar that I have found so far: 1. Honey. 2. Cook similar volumes of rhubarb and orange chunks together. There's no need to add any other sweetener. 3. I bought some rhubarb and strawberry juice, which was delicious - again, no added sugar or sweeteners."
Julia Goodfellow-Smith on Monday 31 May 2010
"Rhubarb, a favorite of mine. I often make rhubarb chutney, raisins, nuts currents, ginger and more. I am anxious to make your recipe for rhubarb juice. thanks"
Gaia on Tuesday 20 July 2010
"Julia - have you heard of stevia? It's a natural sweetener you can grow yourself and it's 30% sweeter than sugar without calories."
cathy x. on Monday 2 August 2010
"Rhubarb custard pie is also really really good!"
kathy baumgart on Monday 7 May 2012
"Hello All: I like the updates/comments that I receive on subjects that I commented on So Long Ago. Nice to see these shared interests ...Kathy's Rhubarb Custard Pie...I love ...Cathy's Steva...I use it...and it grows well in pots...great for the waist line. Great Blog...Thanks"
Gaia on Tuesday 8 May 2012
"I have several plants. My stalks do not seem to get more than about 8-9 inches long. They use to get big before I transplanted the plant. They seem to flower right away also. In the past the flower was grown up out of the center now it is just right at the base of the plant. Never had issues with rhubarb before - not sure what the problem is."
Stacy on Wednesday 9 May 2012
"My plants don';t seem to get very big talks like my neighbors. The are about 12 inches long and about finger thick. hers are bout 3 feet long and two to three times as thick. do I need to fertilize or something. My rhubarb tastes great but not as much as she gets."
Linda on Saturday 2 June 2012
"Hello Cathy.. Your Steva? Whole I mentioned that it grows well in pots...this year I started a small Steva plant in a pot. As each new leaf is is forming...it is turning brown. I am following instructions, but to no avail. I am concerned that it will die away. What do you think the problem is? I will welcome any suggestions."
Gaia on Saturday 2 June 2012
"It is not unusual for rhubarb to show thrifty growth in the first year after transplanting. You can help them recover with a couple of applications of organic fertilizer and regular water. "
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 3 June 2012
"my rhubarb keeps getting big leaves on the plant and my stems are very thin this is my first year."
mal burnside on Friday 3 August 2012
"One of my rhubarb plants is getting a bit large and I noticed that the stalks last year were thinner than in previous years. Therefore, I think the plant needs splitting. When is the best time of the year to do this?"
sue on Tuesday 19 February 2013
"Early spring, as soon as you see signs that the plants are emerging from dormancy, is the best time to dig and divide rhubarb. All perennial plants get a surge of growth in spring, which can go in part to establishing new roots."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 20 February 2013
"Thanks Barbara. Does it matter if the plant is already sending up stalks with leaves? Is it too late now? I've been reluctant to divide the plant before now as it has been so cold and wet, and ground perpetually wet. This particular plant seems to start early and die off earlier than others in other allotments around me. "
Sue on Saturday 2 March 2013
"Sue, it's still early enough that the plants have plenty of growing power ahead. I would go ahead and lift and divide the slow plant."
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 4 March 2013
"Hi there. I am house sitting and I heard that ou shouldn't harvest rhubarb after June, so given it is July 1st, I thought it would be a great idea to harvest the whole plant. Yikes-I just heard that you are not supposed to do this. Have I just killed these people's lovely plans? Is there anything I can do to fix this mistake?"
KDow on Tuesday 2 July 2013
"Don't worry, the plants will grow back right away. They won't be as big, which is usually a good thing. You should peel the summer stalks and blanch the cut pieces by pouring boiling water over them in a heat-proof bowl or pot before cooking and eating them. Peeling and blanching helps remove excess oxalic acid from rhubarb harvested in summer. "
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 2 July 2013
"60 years ago, my Mother would always put about a gallon of chopped rhubarb with 1/4 cup of water and let simmer until soft. She would then add a large pkg of strawberry jello powder and stir it in. Now they make sugar-free jello. I also had a potted rhubarb that moved around the country with us for over 10 years. When we finally bought a house, it was planted in the ground and promptly died. "
Karen Kitt-Chapman on Tuesday 19 April 2016
"I love to see all the old comments...Thanks Everyone"
gaia on Thursday 21 April 2016
"This year my rhubarb doesn't stop growing, it's about 3 feet long and thick stems and prolific. As it is nearly September should I just leave it or pull off all the stalks?. We had a particularly hot summer and the rhubarb has never been so huge. There aren't any flowers on or appearing, just a great mass of rhubarb stalks and leaves that are literally taking over."
Daisy on Tuesday 21 August 2018
"Daisy, this happens often in many parts of the US. Sometimes rhubarb lies down flat in the summer heat, then comes back strong in the fall. You can use summer rhubarb stalks like those that come on in spring, but there is no need to harvest them unless you need them. "
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 21 August 2018
"I usually cut it up into two inch pieces and put in freezer but I still have some from last year! My main concern is what is better for the plant, i.e. whether it is better to be stripped down or just left to die down over the winter. By the way I was on holiday in Sorrento, southern Italy and interestingly no one knew what rhubarb was. I went on a farm tour and they were bragging about their wonderful fruit, etc. and they were surprised when I said 'and where's your rhubarb?'. They never heard of it!"
Daisy on Tuesday 21 August 2018

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