Nancy Helms, Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County
Rhubarb elicits so many childhood memories. On a warm summer day my mother would sit on the back step and give us a stalk of rhubarb with a little dish of sugar. We would suck the sour stalk and then stick in it the sugar, happily doing it over and over again.
Rhubarb is the harbinger of spring and the first harvest from my garden. I’m planning which of my favorite recipes to bake even before the snow is gone. Although rhubarb is a perennial vegetable, it is cooked as a fruit and often known as ‘pie plant.’ Rich in vitamin C, it was known to prevent scurvy on the plains. There are many different varieties but most of us have been given roots from a friend or relatives patch. Stalks can be pencil thin or broomstick thick, red or green. While flavor is not correlated with color, red varieties are usually favored for the color they impart to pies, jams and sauces.
Rhubarb requires at least a three by three foot square in the garden. It grows best in cool weather and full sun. It is a heavy feeder and needs plenty of water and nitrogen. Should rhubarb produce a flower, cut the stalk as close to the base as possible. If allowed to flower and set seed, it will take energy away from producing stalks.
Plants should be at least a year old before harvesting. Begin pulling stalks as soon as they have reached full length, usually twelve inches or more. Rhubarb is pulled rather than cut. Reach down to the bottom of the stalk, close to the ground, and firmly pull. You may need to coax it with a small twist and larger stalks may land you on your backside. Cutting is discouraged as it can transfer disease and attract pests. Use a knife to immediately cut the leave from the stalk and discard. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are toxic. Leaving the leaves on will make the stalks wilt more quickly. The nub at the base of the stalk can also be removed.
Wash and refrigerate in a plastic bag and use within a week. I find it is best to leave it in whole stalks if not ready to use it right away; once diced it tends to dry out. Easy to freeze, frozen rhubarb tends to get soggy when thawed. Slice or dice before spreading it on a parchment lined pan. Freeze until firm and put into freezer bags for up to a year. I like to bag it premeasured and labeled for my favorite recipes; for example, “2 cups rhubarb for bread/muffins.” Add the rhubarb to recipes while still frozen as it releases water and doesn’t hold its shape when thawed.
My rule of thumb has been to quit pulling rhubarb by the 4th of July. Stalks tend to get woody as the temperatures increase. Plants need time to store energy for the winter. Rhubarb season is short; hurry up and get your fill of rhubarb now. The season will be over before you know it.