Its always the first to go: my mom’s rhubarb pie. Her crust is light and fluffy with just the right amount of sweet and salty flavors. But it is what’s between the crusts that everyone fights over. The thick, sweet red rhubarb has just a hint of its original tartness and it oozes all over your fork. When Mom makes this pie, I skip the entree and go right for dessert.
Rhubarb has been around for thousands of years and used to be grown as an additive for medicine before it was mixed with sugar. It is easy to grow. It has huge foliage that can fill up a corner of your garden and comes back year after year. An added bonus is that its tangy stalks can be cooked in pies, jelly, and sweet sauce.
You can easily spot its large leaves and a closer look will reveal its red stalks underneath.
According to Ohio State University, the most common cultivars are MacDonald, Valentine, Victoria, Canada Red, and ‘Crimson Red’. I usually call it “Gami’s Rhubarb” because all of the plants in our family originally came from my grandmother’s sandy garden in Petersburg, Mich.
Rhubarb is a perennial and if you plant it in full sun, you will have it for a long time. It can be grown in your vegetable garden, or in a sunny spot in your perennial bed.
If you are starting from scratch, you will need to give them a little room. It has a root system that is like asparagus. They are called crowns and need to be planted near the surface. If you plant the crowns too deep, they will struggle. Each crown needs about a square yard to spread out.
Dig out a small area in your top soil that is about four inches deep and set your crown in it. Then cover it with a couple inches of soil. Press it down, then water it. The roots spread out from the crown and a base of composted manure will keep it happy for many years. It is even easier when you get a start from a neighbor or a friend that already has an established stand of rhubarb.
Sometimes you will see your rhubarb plant send off a skinny shoot with a white flower on the tip. Since rhubarb is mostly grown for the stem and foliage and not the flower, you can clip the flower off. Those flowers only take away from the production of the coveted stalks emerging from the ground.
If you have a newly planted bed of rhubarb, don’t pick the stalks the first year. Let it get established for a couple years, then you can start cutting during the third year. If the stalks start getting skinny, it is time to stop harvesting and let the plant rest for the season. Try not to cut off more than a third of the plant at a time. It needs some foliage to feed its root system. Young stalks usually have the most flavor and are best picked when the leaf starts to expand. You can pull them off like celery, or cut them with a sharp knife or scissors. Pulling is the least messy way to harvest rhubarb. The stalks will seep if they are cut and the tart liquid can attract insects.
The stalks are the tart part of the plant and are the only edible part. While its huge elephant ear shaped leaves are beautiful, they are toxic. They contain oxalic acid and can make you sick if you eat them. They make great mulch if you lay the big leaves in the rows of your garden and smother weeds. You can also toss them on your compost pile.
Clean the stems, chop them and coat them with a cup of sugar to add to a rhubarb pie. It is easy to make rhubarb jelly with the stalks and some strawberry Jell-O mix. Store it in the refrigerator for a few weeks until you have time to use it in your favorite recipes.
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