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Monday, April 11, 2011


Rhubarb: First Fruits of Spring

Vibrant color and pucker-up flavor make this unusual vegetable a springtime sensation.                     Did You Know?
It's a sure sign of spring when brightly colored rhubarb emerges from its long winter's nap. Cooks in northern regions, where rhubarb grows best, prize this hardy perennial for its tart, tender stalks. And although it's botanically a vegetable, rhubarb is used in recipes the way you would a fruit. In fact, its nickname is "pie plant."
Growing Rhubarb
  • Start rhubarb from nursery plants or crown divisions from a friend's garden. Plant your starts about 2 inches deep in spring or late fall. Rhubarb needs sun to partial shade, with fertile, well-drained soil that's slightly acidic and contains lots of organic matter.
  • Rhubarb plants emerge when spring temperatures reach 45°. The succulent leaf stems--also known as petioles--develop early. Position your plants at the back or side of the garden so they'll be out of harm's way when you're tilling or doing other spring chores. A single rhubarb plant may be enough for a small household. If you grow more than one plant, space them 3 to 4 feet apart to make room for their enormous leaves.
  • If your plant is more than a year old, you can speed up production by draping it with row covers in early spring to allow access for oxygen, light and water while warming the soil and air around the plant.
  • Remove flowers and seed stalks--which can sap the plant's vitality--as soon as they appear. Add a layer of mulch or well-rotted manure in spring. Divide every fourth spring or as needed.
Harvesting Rhubarb
  • Give rhubarb a year to become established, then harvest lightly the following spring. You can enjoy a complete harvest the year after that. Some experts say it's fine to pick all the petioles at the same time; others disagree. To be on the safe side, harvest no more than a third of the plant at one time.
  • When you harvest depends on your climate and the variety of rhubarb. Most plants mature in May or June and can be picked for 4 to 10 weeks.
  • For best results, snap off stems at ground level or twist gently at the base as you would with celery. Trim the leaves off immediately, since they're poisonous and shouldn't be eaten.
  • After a freeze, the oxalic acid that can make the leaves poisonous may migrate to the stems. Dispose of mushy stems or those that appear to have frost damage. If in doubt, throw them into your compost bin (it's safe to do this).
Storing Rhubarb
  • Fresh stalks or chopped pieces can be stored whole in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks in sealed plastic bags.
  • When you're ready to use refrigerated stalks, stand them in a container of cold water first to refresh them. Trim off the ends before chopping. Some cooks remove the stringy fibers, while other let the cooking do the softening.
  • Rhubarb freezes well. Remove the leaves and wash the stalks. Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces, put them in a heavy-duty plastic bag and store it in your freezer for up to 9 months. Blanching, followed by a brief ice-water bath, may preserve the color of the stalks.
Quick Tips
  • One pound of rhubarb equals about 3 cups chopped.
  • Rhubarb is an excellent source of vitamin C, calcium and potassium.
  • You can substitute chopped rhubarb for about half of the fruit in any dessert recipe.

Contact your local garden center or horticulture extension office to find out what grows best in your own backyard.