April 5, 2007 at 7:42 a.m.
Rhubarb originated in the cool highlands of China, Tibet, and Mongolia. However, the eastern trades carried the roots to Europe and they kept their source a secret. The Greeks thought it grew east of the Volga. It was called a Wondrous Drug because of its medical benefits including a gentle laxative and tonic.
By the 1750s, rhubarb hybrids were being grown in Europe and in the new world. Ben Franklin tested it in England and then sent some roots and seed to a friend in Philadelphia.
You may buy rhubarb roots or buy potted plants. A third way would be to dig up some roots from a neighbor or friend. Starting them from seed works, it is just like asparagus seed. It takes longer before you can harvest them but it is possible to start them this way.
Several years ago we bought a potted rhubarb plant from a nursery and made the mistake of planting too close to the buildings. It did nothing for several years so I dug it up and transplanted it. I felt I had nothing to lose so I took an axe and chopped it up into eight pieces. I planted the pieces in a sunny, well drained area where it wouldn't be disturbed by normal garden work. I didn't harvest any stalks for two years until it was well established and I have a very productive patch each year. As a rhubarb plant gets older, the leaf stalks commonly become smaller each year. Some dedicated gardeners start planting in a new location every 6-8 years.
Rhubarb is native to the colder portions of Asia. It grows best in regions that have cool moist summers and winters, cold enough to freeze the ground to a depth of several inches. It is a member of the buckwheat family. The three commonly grown varieties are MacDonald, Chipmans Canada Red and Valentine.
It will grow well in any deep, well-drained fertile soil. Before planting, spade the soil to a depth of 12-16 inches and mix in rotted manure, compost, or other forms of organic matter. Also, by adding a complete fertilizer such as a 5-20-20 with a lower nitrogen number you won't run the risk of burning the roots.
If you plant an already established plant, it should not be harvested until the third year after planting. However, a limited number of leafstalks may be pulled in the second year. To harvest, pull the leafstalk upward and to the side, do not cut them. Always remove and discard the leaf blade portion. Do not eat a leaf blade as it contains oxalic acid and is poisonous. The stalks are the only part to be eaten. They contain harmless malic and citric acids and are not poisonous.
Rhubarb plants will sometimes bolt, which means they send up tall stems that produce flowers and then seeds. Bolting does not affect the edibility of the rest of the plant, so you can continue to harvest. If it does start to bolt, cut (don't pull) the flower stalk off at the base before it starts to expand. Bolting seems to be a trait of rhubarb. Plants grown from seeds may be more prone to annual bolting than named cultivars that are propagated by crown division.
In the spring I carefully rake out the dead rhubarb leaves from last fall. Then I bank composted dirt around the plant and the rhubarb season begins.
I wrote a similar article on rhubarb three or four years ago. I included a recipe the received some favorable comments.
6-8 cups of cut up rhubarb pieces in a 9x13-inch pan. Use a glass dish as the dessert will be in the refrigerator for a couple days. (The acidity of the rhubarb will take on pan taste)
Mix in 1 cup sugar and cinnamon to taste (this is first layer).
Sprinkle one white cake mix (dry) over mixture.
Drizzle 1/2 cup melted butter or margarine (1 stick) over mixture.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup nuts or 1/2 cup oatmeal over mixture.
Bake for one hour at 350 degrees (if glass container 50 minutes).
Goes great with ice-cream.
You can still order fruit, onion and asparagus plants. Please contact the Extension office at the North Branch, 651-674-4417 or Jerry at 651-257-4496 to get a brochure.
Our spring class series 'Garden Fever' has begun! The next class on Saturday, April 21 will cover Managing Fruit Tree Pests and Raising Strawberries and Raspberries.
Class brochures as well as the plant order forms are available on the website at www.extension.umn. edu/county/chisago or you can call the Extension office at 651-674-4417 to have one mailed to you.
A cutback in staffing has made it necessary for the Extension Office to limit hours of operation. As of the beginning of April, the office will be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We would suggest that you call ahead to verify that the office is open before you stop by.