When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan the first garden-fresh food that we indulged in early in the gardening season was rhubarb. My mom, who was as creative as she was thrifty when it came to feeding her brood, took advantage of our perennial patch in numerous ways. The fresh, crisp, rosy-red and green striated sticks of rhubarb ended up in pies, jam, preserved as a kind of “fruit”, and cut up into pieces to be frozen for our enjoyment later on in the year. My dad, who like to imbibe, tried his hand at preserving it another way by concocting a type of rhubarb “wine”. I don’t recall the flavour of the later since I was too young to partake, but, I do have strong memories of all the other forms, and of donning a huge rhubarb leaf as a hat or cape in our childhood playfulness. I suspect that my love of rhubarb comes from those earlier years.
Flash Forward…as my rapidly growing plants start to fill up their designated spots in the garden this year, I look forward to our first rhubarb pie of the season. The tart flavour, tempered with honey or organic sugar, is quite delightful. If I don’t get the amount of honey quite right, adding a good scoop of ice cream is a nice finish. While a pie is generally the first form that rhubarb takes in our home, it is “rhubarb compote” that keeps the spring time flavor of this vegetable cum fruit present during the winter months.
Rhubarb compote, while fancy sounding, is very easy to make. I simply chop the sticks into small pieces, stew them up, add our honey to taste, cool, pour into muffin tins to make “compote pucks”, freeze, extract from the tins and place in freezer ziplocs, and return to freezer. Depending on the size of your muffin tins you will end up with individual or double portions, small or large enough to serve in numerous fashions. We use it on granola or ice cream, or in smoothies. If you like rhubarb, you will certainly like it as a compote.
If you don’t have a rhubarb plant and you want to plant one, there are few pointers that might help you along the way to gracing your garden with this hardy vegetable.
Planting – Spring time is best in our Zone 5 location. If you live in coastal BC you can plant in the fall as well – the fall temperatures there are high enough, long enough to ensure that the roots will establish before soil freeze. Plant in full sun in fertile, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. You might get a few sticks to enjoy in the first year, but as with most new perennial food plantings you really shouldn’t harvest in the first year, and only lightly in the second year. * After that, harvest to your heart’s content.
*NOTE: Let your plant get well established before harvesting.
Harvesting – When you finally do get to harvest your plant(s), you will want to pull the stalks and not cut them. With a slight twist and tug you will release the stalk in a way that will encourage more plant growth. NOTE: if you were to cut the stalk there is no place for a new one to start growing from.
Considerations – Rhubarb leaves are poisonous so do not eat them! They contain oxalic acid, a colorless substance commonly used in products such as metal polishes, stain removers, bleaches, and anti-rust products. The stalk also contain this substance, but not in harmful quantities. (If you have ever cooked rhubarb in a pot that was stained – you might find that the presence of oxalic acid in the stalks acts as a kind of cleaner.)
A good use for the leaves (besides make believe hats and capes) is to use them to make up an organic and natural pesticide.
A final note…If you run out of room in your food gardens, try planting one or more plants amongst your ornamentals. The attractive foliage is large enough to fill in a lot of space, shades the ground to help reduce weed growth, and, if let go to seed the seed heads are an added visual bonus.
Some rhubarb resources: