Many of us are somewhat familiar with rhubarb – that hardy perennial garden plant with large bushy leaves and thick reddish green stalks.
My mother and both sets of grandmothers often used rhubarb to make homemade pies and desserts. In fact, my grandmother referred to it as “pie plant.”
But, did you know this reddish flora is really a vegetable? Commonly mistaken for a fruit, the plant is actually one of only a few perennial vegetables, with asparagus being another.
I grow this leafy bush in my backyard and it looks great tucked into the landscaping. However, the real reason I grow it is for use in recipes – especially homemade strawberry rhubarb jam.
I was curious why the jam didn’t seem to really need as much pectin as most recipes, so I decided to investigate further. Here are some rather interesting facts I discovered in my recent research.
Origins, History, and Medicinal Uses
Rhubarb is a member of the same plant family as buckwheat, and it originated in Mongolia in northern Asia. It was first introduced to Europeans in the 1760s, but the pink plant wasn’t used as a food source until later in the seventeenth century, when sugar became more affordable to the common people.
Numerous varieties have been domesticated for use as medicinal plants and for consumption. The type commonly grown in America today is actually a hybrid of Chinese varieties, developed during the nineteenth century.
Traditional Chinese medicine considers rhubarb root to a natural cleanser for the intestines, bowels, liver and blood, because it helps rid the body of accumulated toxins. But consuming the root is not recommended, unless under the direction of a medical professional.
Chinese medicine has used the dried roots for over 2,000 years as a mild but extremely effective laxative.
Chinese rhubarb has a much stronger taste and active properties than most modern Western stains. The root is believed to have anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
Besides diarrhea and constipation, the root has also been used to treat a variety of common conditions including pinworms, hemorrhoids, stomach upset, minor burns, cold sores, and even ringworm.
Use as a Food
The American hybrid of Chinese rhubarb is grown for its edible tart-flavored stalks. This plant can be cooked and enjoyed in a variety of ways, and the stalks are good stewed and made into sauce.
You can add other fruits and sugar to the sauce to make tasty fillings for fruit pies and tarts. Strawberry rhubarb pie and cherry rhubarb are two of my favorites.
It may be added to cakes and is as versatile as a cook’s imagination allows. How about trying some strawberry rhubarb upside-down cake instead of pineapple?
I mix the stalks with strawberries and can my own strawberry rhubarb jam. It’s a delicious homemade treat, and it makes a great addition to my Christmas gift baskets!
That is what inspired my research in the beginning. I was hoping to avoid the need to buy pectin, if it was not essential.
I discovered the answer to my original question – rhubarb naturally contains a notable amount of pectin (it’s also available in high amounts in crab apples, and those are what the “old timers” often used when store bought was not available).
The three essential ingredients needed to make any jam, jelly, or fruit preserve are sugar, acid, and pectin.
When combined, these lower the pH of the fruit, bind the water, and decrease the tendency toward growth of any microorganisms. The fruit in these recipes can often provide all the pectin and acid that is needed.
Whenever any of these key ingredients is low, they can be added in a supplemental form. Commercial pectin is a little pricey, so it is nice to know that if I make homemade jams, I may be able to avoid this added expense.
As a side note: many recipes using pectin also call for added lemon juice. This is the acid that’s added to produce a better gel set. In the case of rhubarb recipes, I prefer adding a can of crushed pineapple instead, as it is only mildly acidic. Note that this may not be suitable for all recipes.
For those who haven’t grown up around rhubarb, you should be made aware that the leaves are poisonous and contain high levels oxalic acid, which should not be consumed in large doses.
The same chemical is also found in the roots and stalks, but in less and only mildly toxic concentrations. USE THE STALKS ONLY.
Propagation and Growing Tips
Now, for those that might like to grow your own rhubarb but lack a place to plant the bushy perennial, I have some more good news. I started a patch from seed in a large pot.
After the second growing season, it was large enough to start picking. You will need to separate the roots and re-pot your plants in fresh potting soil after three or four years.
They keep multiplying, so you may want to relocate them elsewhere to keep the plants healthy, or buy more large pots. Mine have grown beautifully.
Most people who grow this unique vegetable started theirs from root stock, but I have found it will grow quite successfully from seed, too. It just takes a little longer for the vegetation to reach full maturity.
I found part of the secret to growing rhubarb in large outdoor pots is to know when to stop watering. This perennial loves sunny, well-drained locations.
Rhubarb produces seeds on the same center stock as their flowers. When I first seeded, I decided to experiment and see if I could grow it in a large pot.
I figured if it worked, it would be easy to take the plants with me if I ever need to move. The seeds appear on the top of the plant’s flowering stalks whenever they’re left uncut long enough to actually produce flowers.
From my personal experience, this occurs in late summer or early fall, but will not occur if it is harvested too late in the season to allow time for flower production.
Additional Growing Tips:
- In warmer climates, rhubarb will grow all year long. In colder climates the top of the stalks and leaves will die off in late fall, but they will start growing again in early spring.
- If you want the vegetation to start sprouting sooner in the springtime, you can always force it by placing an upside-down bucket over the shoots as they are coming up. This keeps the plant warmer and encourages faster growth, kind of a mini greenhouse effect.
- During hot summer months, watering daily encourages faster and more productive plant growth.
- It should be watered less frequently in the early fall, stopping while the soil still appears a little dry on top.
- Soil that is too damp over the winter will encourage root rot, and that must be avoided if you want your patch to survive and continue producing for many years to come.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant that grows well in temperate and cooler climates. Only the stalks are eaten, since as we’ve said, the leaves are poisonous.
The juicy stalks are tart and crisp, and they are usually cooked into sweet and even savory dishes – but some folks do like to eat it raw as well.
- It’s best to wait until at least year three to harvest it. Let it develop a good root structure, and allow stalks to get about an inch thick.
- To get more out of your rhubarb plant, remove the flower stems when they come up. If you want good stalk development, you don’t want to let the plant bloom.
- The best time to harvest is about April through June. Hothouse varieties are available year around.
- To harvest, pull or twist the stalk off at the base of the plant. You don’t want to cut it off, because this may leave a bit of stalk that can decay.
- If you want the sweetest stalks, go for the brightest red and thinnest available.
- Be sure your stalks are firm and flat; you don’t want any that are limp, curved, damaged, frozen, or diseased.
- Cut all leaves off the stem right below the leaf, and dispose of them outside the kitchen, where children can’t get a hold of them. Composting is not recommended, especially if there are any diseased leaves.
- It’s a good idea to harvest only half the plant at one picking – this gives your plant time to recover.
You can store cut stalks in the refrigerator for at least 2 weeks wrapped in plastic. If you won’t be eating or cooking with these right away, it can be a good idea to put the cut ends in a container of cold water to hydrate them before further preparation.
- When you are ready to work with your stalks, trim both ends off and remove any spongy portions. Pull off fibrous strings by peeling down the stalk, but try not to remove the flavorful skin.
- Cut stalks that are wider than one inch into halves or thirds. Slice lengthwise, and trim off any blemishes.
- A pound of cut rhubarb makes three to four cups of chopped. To chop, cut the width of the stalk into quarter-inch or half-inch pieces.
- Homegrown is usually stronger in flavor and brighter in color than hothouse varieties.
- If you harvest late in the season, you may need to add more liquid to your recipe, or reduce the thickener. Late stalks may not be as juicy.
- Rhubarb is acidic – so you don’t want to cook it in aluminum, copper, or iron pans that react. In reactive metal pans, the vegetation turns brownish and the pan discolors. Instead, cook in coated pans or glass baking pans.
- To help reduce the acidity, you can add orange juice or pineapple juice to your dish.
- Stalks can be substituted for cranberries in recipes, since both are tart.
- If you combine it with sweeter fruits, you won’t need as much sugar to sweeten your dish.
- Rhubarb has a tendency to sweeten as it cooks, so it’s best to add sugar slowly. You can always add more –when cooking, but not so much with baking! – but you can’t remove any extra once it’s already there.
- Strings break down during cooking, but so does texture. If you want to keep the firm texture in your dish, be sure not to cook it for too long.
- If you plan to freeze your rhubarb, wash it first; then chop it or make it into a sauce. For storing sauce, choose a firm freezer container, and leave enough head space as it will expand when it cools. In an airtight container, frozen chunks keep for up to a full year – long enough to get you through until the next season!
- You can freeze chopped stalks raw, or you can blanch them first. To blanch, drop chopped rhubarb into boiling water for one to two minutes. Strain and plunge into ice cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and pat dry.
- Freeze raw or blanched individual pieces on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, you can put these into a zip-top freezer storage bag. This method allows you to get just what you need out of the bag when you’re ready to use it, since all of the pieces won’t be stuck together.
- Label and date the bag and freeze it flat. Don’t freeze it on a wire rack, because the pieces have a tendency to get stuck between the slats. You can always re-stack frozen flat bags, but you can’t easily stack ones that get stuck or become odd-shaped.
Rhubarb is truly a versatile plant and quite easy to grow. It survived on its own growing in the wild for centuries, without any added human intervention. It’s likely that it will not only grow, but thrive in your garden!