Where has all the Rhubarb Gone?

I confess, I am a HUGE fan of Rhubarb, every year adding another plant to my wee garden.  Rhubarb it is such a terrific plant for New England yards, it looks impressive, has multiple uses, can be used in sweet or savory dishes and best of all, needs very little attention to grow. I love plants I can eat and ignore.

When I was a kid, 50 plus years ago, Rhubarb was a very common sight in side yards and back gardens; with some plantings dating back to the 19th century.  Since then these yard plant sightings have become a rare sight, causing me to crane my neck whenever I drive past a luscious garden. Where did they all go? Did they die off?  Did people just dig them up when they when they moved?  I like to think we ate them all up. In my case, I once had some landscapers drop a load of loam on top of an established patch.  But a change is taste is probably the most like cause.

Sometimes called ‘the pie plant’, Rhubarb the vegetable we treat like a fruit, usually only appears on the table unnecessarily paired with strawberry.  Rhubarb sauced, stewed or preserved goes on everything from ice cream to pancakes and shortcakes. Savory rhubarb, sautéed or as chutney are a terrific  companion for meats.  Tart chunks of rhubarb can create salads or salsas; anyplace you would use dried cranberries. I throw it in stews and meat loaves.  It is ridiculously easy to turn Rhubarb stalks into jams, preserves or beverages by varying amounts of sugar and water and cooking time.  Among my earliest childhood memories were of being parked on the back steps with a rhubarb stalk in one fist and a sugar bowl in the other.

In late spring Maine, Rhubarb appears at farmer’s markets and roadside stands alongside fiddleheads and ramps, but then it vanishes again until the next year.  A larger percentage of the stalks are harvested in spring by twisting, causing the plant to regrow what it needs for the summer.  But more stalks can be pulled from established plants in early fall; an ideal second crop for preserving and freezing.  Rhubarb doesn’t have to be processed to freeze, just cut it up and freeze it on a sheet pan then bag up the pieces; it will keep frozen until next year.  For a Rhubarb fiend like me, pulling a few more stalks at the end of the season, and adding them to my freezer bag keeps me in Rhubarb crumbles and muffins until spring.

Rhubarb came to New England as a perennial garden plant, with the British colonists, after a very long roundabout trip from central Asia.  It contains calcium and fiber and is high in vitamin K, vitamin C, iron and manganese and was historically valued as much for its healthful and implied medicinal properties as much as culinary ones.  Aside from night time slugs the leaves attracting very few pests.  They contain too much oxalic acid for human consumption, but this compound breaks down quickly in a compost pile.  They make a nice green mulch; I slide them around the base of young plants, like a big doily.  Because of the oxalic acid content, you can use the leaves to polish up your stainless steel pots and pans, before you put them back into the garden.  Some folks use the leaves as a mordant when dyeing textiles.

Rhubarb likes water and grows best in well-drained soil with lots of organic matter.  In my own yard, I have it planted about three feet apart, along the sunny side of the house, where the large leaves shade the side of the foundation and the cellar window. With some top dressing of compost in spring, it seems to thrive. I will be able to divide my rhubarb plants soon and spread the joy to other corners of the yard.  Rhubarb is best propagated from crown divisions, and bare root stock; getting your hands on different varieties takes a lot more effort than it does getting heirloom vegetable seeds.  Only a few growers will bring potted rhubarb divisions to the market, so you have to be quick to snatch them up, but you can order different varieties a bare rootstock online.

By not growing more rhubarb we are missing out on a delightfully versatile plant, which grows with very little attention in practically any yard.  Yards without a cultivated garden can be a source of tasty treats.  To help add a lot more biodiversity to your edible landscape, it is good to do a soil test for lead that may still be hanging around in the yard.  The University of Maine Cooperative Extension offers soil test kits (testing is $18).  Besides planting some Rhubarb, don’t forget to eat your Dandelion, Burdock and Purslane weeds, and pretty things up with edible annuals like Pansy, Nasturtium, Chrysanthemum.  Besides Rhubarb, add other ornamental and edible perennials to your yard, like ostrich ferns (fiddleheads) and Hostas, the young shoots are prepared similar to asparagus.  If every yard had rhubarb there would be a lot more rhubarb to go around.

Rhubarb Sauce

1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice
2-1/4 cups sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb
[dash of nutmeg]

In a small saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil.
Add rhubarb; cook and stir for 5-10 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and mixture is slightly thickened.
Remove from the heat, stir in nutmeg if using.
Serve over ice cream or pound cake or pancakes.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension Bulletin #3514 Growing Rhubarb in Maine 

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