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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog

Rhubarb


Spring brings fresh, new rhubarb stalks perfect for eating.

Rhubarb, also known as the pie plant, is a very hardy perennial garden vegetable that grows extremely well here. Although considered a vegetable, rhubarb is used as a fruit in pies, tarts, cakes, and sauces.

Rhubarb is available in either red or green stalk varieties. A popular green stalk one is Victoria. More is available in red including Canada Red with long, thick, extra sweet stalks, Cherry Red with red in and out, Crimson Red that is tall and plump, and MacDonald with tender skin and brilliant red color. For a complete listing of University of Illinois Extension recommended varieties go to urbanext.illinois.edu/veggies/rhubarb

If you want to start rhubarb, here are some tips. Plant enough for your family. A half-dozen plants should provide enough rhubarb for most families. Plant or divide rhubarb roots in early spring when the plants are still dormant for best results. You can move small plants now, but don't wait much longer.

Place roots with the crown bud 2 inches below the surface of the soil. Space the roots 36 to 48 inches apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Good drainage is essential. Water new plants properly and keep weeded. Rhubarb doesn't need much additional care once established. If you want to fertilize, use a complete garden fertilizer such as 12-12-12 granules before growth begins in the spring. An application of manure or compost is beneficial in late fall or early winter, but do not smother the crowns.

Harvest requires a few rules of thumb. Never harvest rhubarb during the first year of planting or too late in the fall. The plants need upper growth to build up health and vigor to make it through the winter. Stalks may be harvested for 1 or 2 weeks during the second year. By the third year, you should get a full harvest of 8 to 10 weeks.

If seed heads and flowers develop during the spring and summer, cut them from the base of the plant. This will assure the plants put energy into more stalks and not flowers. Leafstalks are the highest quality in early spring, but can be harvested through mid-summer.

Finally, yes, rhubarb can be toxic. In fact the leaves of rhubarb are extremely poisonous. They contain large amounts of oxalic acid and should not be eaten. Also, do not feed rhubarb leaves to animals. Rhubarb stalks (stems) are safe to eat, unless the plants are severely frozen. If rhubarb leaves freeze and leafstalks are "mushy" the oxalic acid may have migrated from the leaf blades to the stems. Additionally, frozen leafstalks have poor texture and flavor and should not be eaten.

Enjoy some rhubarb this season. It is delicious!



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