Photo and story by Donna Iverson
In these dark days, sometimes it's the little things that keep our spirits up... watching a robin pull a worm out of the dirt, daffodils opening their yellow faces in the morning sun, rhubarb stalks pushing up through the garden soil. Each spring, rhubarb offers reassurance, a reliable perennial that performs year after year with little effort on your part.
If you are a rhubarb fan, spring is the time to plant. Most people buy crowns or divisions at their local nursery or garden shop. But you can grow rhubarb from seed. Rhubarb seeds can be purchased from catalogs such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co in Missouri ( email: firstname.lastname@example.org. ) Seeds need to be started indoors or in a nursery bed.
When transplanting to the garden. rhubarb needs a lot of space, about a square foot minimum for each plant. It is a heavy feeder, doesn't tolerate drought, and requires regular watering. Deer, sheep, cows and sheep will eat the leaves which are toxic to humans, as they contain oxalic acid. The plant also produces small inedible flowers. Rhubarb is best planted at the edge of a garden bed so as not to interfere with other vegetable plants.
Rhubarb is one of the first food plants harvested in spring, often as early as May in Michigan. Come June, it is in full production and ready to combine with fresh-picked strawberries in a Rhubarb-Strawberry pie. Because rhubarb is so tart, it needs the sweetness of strawberries to provide the perfect sweet-sour balance that our taste buds love. Rhubarb is also used in crumbles, jams, sauces, muffins and cakes. The Finns use it to make mead wine.
Technically, rhubarb is a vegetable, but back in 1947, a New York court legally declared it a fruit, because that is how it is cooked and eaten.
Historically, the rhubarb is an Asian native, dating back thousands of years when it was used by the Chinese for medicine. They used it as a laxative, although there is no scientific evidence of its efficacy. During the Middle Ages, traders carried it along the Silk Road and it made its way to Europe. It was considered a luxury item along with satin, diamonds, pearls and rubies.
In 1730, rhubarb seeds appeared in America, where it was first planted by the famous botanist and horticulturist John Bartram in his Philadelphia garden. It was during the 1700s that rhubarb made the switch from medicine to the food table. By 1809, President Thomas Jefferson was growing rhubarb at Monticello.
Somehow, just the sight of a rhubarb plant in spring, renews my faith that we will make it through this. And gardening can be a helpful tonic to our troubles.