Rhubarb: Everything You Should Know About This Tough And Cold-hardy Plant

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a hardy herbaceous perennial. It is a cultivated plant in the genus Rheum of the smartweed family called Polygonaceae. The whole plant grows from short, thick rhizomes, commonly in cold areas of the temperate zones. It is also called a pie plant. Rhubarb is native to Asia and grown for its large edible leafstalks.

The culinary world uses these fleshy, edible stalks as both raw and cooked. Here is a detailed article on the rhubarb plant and how to grow it in your home garden?

The plant’s fleshy, tart, and highly acidic leafstalks are used in pies, jams, and jellies. In addition, the plant is often used with strawberries in fruit compote and preserves, sometimes as the base of wine or an aperitif. Since ancient times, the roots of Chinese Rhubarb have also been used medicinally in China and Tibet, primarily as a cathartic.

Common NameRhubarb
Botanical NameRheum Rhabarbarum
Plant TypePerennial Vegetable That Is Grown As A Winter Annual In Warm Climates
Size (Fully Grown)2 To 3 Feet Tall (About 60 To 91 cm)
Sun ExposureFull Sun
Soil TypeMoist But Well-draining Fertile Soil
Soil pHFrom 5.5 To 6.5
Flower ColorGreenish-white To Rose-red
U.S. Hardiness Zones1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, And 10
Native AreaAsia

How Many Rhubarb Varieties Are There?

Rhubarb’s unique sour taste makes it stand out among its plant family, which is why people have experimented and researched it as well. As a result, several rhubarb varieties are available in the natural and hybrid market, at least 60 to 100. All the types carry specific attributes that make them desirable to grow. Here are some of the common varieties:

  1. Sunrise
  2. Victoria
  3. Valentine
  4. KangaRhu
  5. Cherry Red
  6. Hardy Tarty
  7. Canada Red
  8. Early Albert
  9. Crimson Red
  10. Prince Albert
  11. German Wine
  12. Riverside Giant
  13. Crimson Cherry
  14. Timperley Early
  15. Gaskin’s Perpetual
  16. Grandad’s Favorite
  17. Stein’s Champagne
  18. Glaskin’s Perpetual
  19. Holstein’s Bloodred
  20. Reed’s Early Superb
  21. Hawke’s Champagne
  22. Chipman’s Canada Red

Origins And History Of The Rhubarb Plant

Like other vegetables, rhubarb’s name comes from Greek and Latin around the 14th century. The Greek physicians used the plant for medicinal purposes. But around the 18th century, rhubarb was finally introduced in Europe. Besides its great medicinal purposes, the plant was grown as a vegetable too, and soon it found its way into dining tables.

The precise origin of culinary rhubarb is unknown. However, people say that rhubarb became a popular addition to pies and other desserts in the 18th and 19th centuries after sugar became widely available in England.

Even though rhubarb is a vegetable, we often put it to the same culinary uses as fruits. Rhubarb looks kind of like celery, but it’s much prettier. The leaf stalks can be used raw when they have a crisp texture and a strong, tart taste.

You can eat rhubarb raw, but I bet that you won’t probably enjoy the taste of it. It has a sour, brutally bitter taste, so most people prefer to cook it with sugar and use it in pies, crumbles, and other desserts.

How To Recognize Rhubarb?

Rhubarb is a cool-season crop usually prepared and used like some fruit. It is grown for its fibrous edible leaf stalks used to make different dishes.

Rhubarb leaves appear early in the spring. The plant produces large clumps of enormous leaves up to two feet (about 61 cm). The leaves are borne on proportionally large leafstalks, one inch (about 2,54 cm) or more from an underground stem.

The stalk also bears flowers later in the season. A large central flower stalk appears and bears many small flowers grouped in large compound leafy greenish-white to rose-red inflorescences.

© Julia Poleeva – stock.adobe.com

How To Grow Rhubarb?

It’s pretty easy to grow rhubarb, and the planting begins in spring. The plant is usually grown from crowns rather than seeds because using a crown means you’ll harvest the same yeat. If you want to use seeds, you’d have to wait for a year for harvest-ready produce.

Once there’s no fear of frost insight in early spring and the ground becomes workable, plant your rhubarb crowns around 2 inches (about 5 cm) deep and 4 feet (about 1,21 meters) apart. Dig individual holes more like a long trench. Also, remember to water the plant well once you’ve planted them.

When it’s time to harvest, cut the stalks close to the soil, or pull out each stem by hand, but do it carefully. But if you live in a warm climate and grow rhubarb as an annual, you can harvest the way you want because the plant won’t likely survive for another year.

But if you’re growing in a cold climate, it’s better not to gather at all in the first growing season to ensure that the plant becomes established. You can then harvest a small number of stalks in the second growing season. After that, you can harvest rhubarb for around one month during the third season.

Lastly, you can harvest whenever there are stalks ready for picking. If you let the rhubarb flower, the stalks will be thinner. Remember to remove any flower stalks thicker and taller than leaf stalks as soon as they appear.

Don’t Forget To Remove The Weeds!

Like most garden plants, rhubarb doesn’t like competition from weeds. An excellent way to ensure this is to spread a 2-inch (about 5 cm) layer of mulch around the plants. This is a great way to keep the weeds away, but it will also conserve water.

Now that you know that growing rhubarb isn’t that hard, you might be glad to know that this hardy perennial lives long, and some varieties can grow for even 20 years or longer.

Light

Rhubarb will grow and produce well when you plant it in a full sun environment. But, during the hottest months of the year in the warmer growing zones, the plants will enjoy some afternoon shade. Be careful, though, and don’t provide too much shade as that can result in thin stems.

Temperature And Humidity

Rhubarb likes to grow in a temperature below 40°F (4,4°C) in the winter and below 75°F (24°C) in the summer. The plant can grow as an annual in warmer areas, but as I mentioned earlier, too much heat or shade can result in thin stalks and leaves. In addition, it isn’t easy to maintain an even moisture level in dry climates. This is where a layer of mulch can be beneficial.

Water

Rhubarbs’ first two years are crucial, and as a grower, you need to provide the plant with regular watering as it likes consistent moisture. But, always avoid overwatering because the crowns can’t handle that amount of water, and in the worst-case scenario, they can rot.

Soil

The plant prefers slightly acidic soil, which means that the soil pH is around 5.5 to 6.5. Besides this, don’t forget to provide soil high in organic matter, which helps support its growth. Also, the soil should be moist but, at the same time, drain well.

Fertilizing

Rhubarb loves organic matter! So, high-quality compost in the soil is an excellent way to make sure it grows well. But, please don’t use any chemical fertilizer with a young rhubarb plant. The main reason for this is that chemical fertilizers contain a lot of nitrates that can even kill them.

A good alternative is to add organic fertilizer around your plant at the start of the second growing season.

What Can Rhubarb Be Used For?

Rhubarb is a unique vegetable as it tastes very sour and slightly sweet. In Asian countries, the vegetable is mainly enjoyed raw in salads and even preserved for pickles. In Europe, people easily mistook that rhubarb is a fruit, but as we now know, it’s a vegetable. And people in Europe usually cook the plant somehow because rhubarb tastes too sour when it’s raw. That is typically the reason why it is cooked and sweetened with sugar.

In ancient times, rhubarb was also used for medicinal purposes, both in Asia and Europe. Since ancient times, the dried roots have been utilized in traditional Chinese and Tibet medicine for thousands of years, primarily as a cathartic.

Only the stalks of rhubarb are edible, and those are parts rich in iron and vitamins A and C. Therefore, they are mainly used to make sweet soups, jams, sauces, pies, tarts, crumbles, cocktails, and rhubarb wine. As sweet rhubarb pies are a traditional dessert in the United Kingdom and North America, this vegetable is sometimes called a “pie plant.”

The leaves that rhubarb produces are poisonous, so people use them to make organic fertilizers because they aren’t suitable for eating.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Rhubarb?

As discussed, the leaves rhubarb produces are poisonous and should be removed upon harvesting. This is because they contain oxalic acid crystals, toxic to both humans and animals. In addition, the poison may cause weakness, breathing difficulties, stomach pain, and even vomiting, to name a few symptoms.

Also, I want to remind you that frost damage can cause the leaves’ oxalic acid crystals to move into the stalks. So, to make sure that it’s still edible, ensure that the stalks are firm and upright.

Now that you know more about the plant, it’s time to determine whether it’s safe to eat rhubarb if you have some common medical condition or you’re even expecting a baby.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Even though we have warned you about this plant’s minor dangers throughout the article, it’s entirely safe to eat rhubarb stalks (but not leaves) during pregnancy. But remember to eat in moderation, though!

Children

Rhubarb is entirely safe for kids to eat, but if you want to know the amount it takes to consume a lethal amount, it’s about 5.7 to 11.7 pounds (about 2,5 to 5.31 kg). That’s a lot of leaves to eat, am I right!

Besides, we use the stalks in cooking, so it’s impossible to even eat that much by accident.

People With Allergies

Even though it is not common to be allergic to rhubarb, it doesn’t mean that this allergy doesn’t exist. This means that you are possibly allergic to rhubarb if you face symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, or even vomiting. Other milder reactions like itchy skin, eczema, or hives are also possible.

People With Diabetes

Rhubarb is an incredibly beneficial plant for diabetics. With the help of this plant, your pancreas secretes insulin and thus reduces blood glucose levels. This is an excellent thing for people who have diabetes.

But the advantages of this plant don’t end here! Rhubarb also reduces blood fat levels and even lowers your high blood pressure. What’s more, it also helps guard your eye and brain health.

Pets

Don’t let your pets eat or even serve rhubarb to your pets, and the reason for this is the high oxalic acid content of the plant. As we’ve discussed throughout this article, rhubarb leaves can be harmful to humans, especially pets.

Eating the leaves can cause your pet to vomit, irritation in their mouth, and even diarrhea, and that isn’t even the most dangerous stuff. The leaves can also cause kidney failure, tremors, or even coma.

I know that we talked about leaves earlier, but I would still be careful and keep your pets away from the stalks too.

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