In both the Oregon Cascades and the Montana Rocky mountains, two plants that are among the first to start vigorously growing in the United States are strawberries and rhubarb. Both are extremely hardy perennials that seem to breeze right through even bitter cold temperatures. In fact, most of the rhubarb produced in the US comes from Oregon, Washington, Montana, Colorado and Michigan. It seems appropriate somehow that strawberries and rhubarb combine so well in strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is quite easy to grow. That said, it should also be mentioned that rhubarb can’t survive anywhere that doesn’t get cold enough for the plant to become dormant. For the plant to do this, the daytime high temperatures in the winter need to be 40 F or less for at least several weeks. Most of the growth is also when the temperatures are below 70 F. Thus, it is a plant that is most at home in places that have a harsh winter and a cool spring.
The rhubarb plant doesn’t do very well when the temperatures become very hot. In part, this is because the leaves are very large and when it is hot, they release a great amount of water in a process called transpiration. When the temperatures are such that more water is transpired than the amount taken in by the roots, the leaves begin to wilt. In fact, this is the cause of wilting leaves for virtually all plants and it is the reason squash and pumpkin leaves often wilt during the heat of the day, since they are also large. Squash and pumpkin simply has an extensive root system, so they can recover from the wilting quickly.
In the Montana Rockies, daytime temperatures of more than 100 F are common during the hottest part of summer. This means that the plants do best if they are shaded at this time and they still require a lot of water. Additionally, they should be planted in soil that drains well and the ground should be deep enough for the roots to grow down at least a couple of feet, to where the ground is perpetually cool and moist.
The leaf stalks, which are the part that are harvested, grow from the root, so this should be initially planted a few inches deep. The soil should be both loose and relatively rich in organic material, such as finished compost. Other than that, the main thing that needs to be done is to water the plants well, not allowing the soil to get too dry for more than a few days. The wilting leaves will tell you if the plant needs more water.
Harvesting is simple. Just break off the leaf stalk at ground level and snap off the leaf at the top. The edible part is the stalk, which is often in excess of two feet in length and over an inch thick. The leaves should *never* be eaten, because they are very high in oxalic acid and can cause poisoning.
The plant can also be grown in a large, deep pot, which means that people could grow it in hotter climates, since the entire pot could be put in the freezer to allow for the period of dormancy. Every few years, the roots can be separated and in this way, new plants can be planted. Rhubarb will also grow from seeds, though it takes several years before the plant will get big enough to harvest any leaf stalks.
Rhubarb is sometimes called pie plant, since the stalks are great in a number of different pies. The flavor is tart, so they are fantastic when combined with sweet fruits, such as strawberries and peaches.
Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in vitamins C, K, B2 and in calcium, manganese and potassium. They are also low in calories.
This plant has a very long history. It has been grown for hundreds or thousands of years by the Chinese, who have used the root medicinally, mostly as a powerful laxative and astringent. Some sources say that the Chinese have been using the root for nearly 5,000 years. The plant was also used by the Greeks and Romans.
In fact, the name is Latin. The Greeks got the plant from ‘barbarian’ lands along the River Volga. The ancient Greeks called the river Rha and Latin for ‘barbarian’ is barbarum. Thus, Rha barbarum became Rhubarb. You might notice that the plant still retains the Latin specific name of rhabarbarum.
It is interesting that though the history is long, the stalks have only been eaten for about 200 years, mostly in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Note: People who are prone to kidney stones should not eat rhubarb. The stalks don’t contain nearly as much oxalic acid as the leaves, but there is enough there that it can contribute to the formation of kidney stones in people who are prone to them.
The rhubarb plant in the top picture was planted in 2013, in a raised bed made out of a 16 inch pickup tire. That winter, temperatures got down to -55 F and the soil in the tire froze solid, literally. It had the consistency of cement. I thought that the rhubarb would surely be dead. I was pleasantly surprised when it came up again in the spring, as healthy as could be.
The stalks are already about a foot long and the leaves are about 10 inches in length in this picture. The second plant was planted last summer and is substantially smaller, but quite healthy.
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Posted in food and plants and tagged garden, grow, rhabarbarum, rhubarb, vegetable by rextrulove with 8 comments.