Romans imported rhubarb roots from unknown, barbarian lands beyond the Vogue/Rha river so the plant became rhabarbarum and eventually just rhubarb. Widespread consumption of rhubarb stalks began in Britain in the early 19th century with its popular adoption as an ingredient in desserts and wine making. Joseph Myatt, a South London nurseryman with some rhubarb plants and a recipe for tarts, convinced others that the otherwise bitter plant could taste good when combined with something sweet (by the way he also grew strawberries and sugar was also readily available at this time). In the U.S., there are about 1,300 acres devoted to rhubarb today, mostly in Washington, Oregon and California. It is high in calcium, vitamin C and fiber.
Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable (comes back every spring) and is easy to grow in Sublette County. Stalks, not leaves (contain oxalic acid that can be poisonous), are edible and can be used in many ways. Once you get used to using rhubarb you will have a tendency to add it to many recipes, usually with great results. It can be eaten raw, but will be very tart; however, when cooked, it becomes very soft and mellow.
Rhubarb can live a long time (over 20 years with minimal maintenance) and can get very large (4 feet in diameter), so choose your planting site carefully. A good site is one that gets full sun, with good drainage; even though you should water regularly, water should not sit around the plant (this might lead to crown rot and encourage pests like slugs). Water when the soil becomes dry and fertilize with a high nitrogen fertilizer regularly.
Plants can be placed in the ground in flower and vegetable gardens (not much will compete with this plant), in a large, deep container, as an edible conversation piece in your landscape or even in a compost pile. Even though you can easily divide and move rhubarb (take a portion of a parent plant with at least 2 stems), if it likes where it is planted, it will thrive and provide pounds of lovely stalks each year.
Consider planting several plants, since most recipes call for at least 3 cups of chopped rhubarb.
You can start rhubarb from seeds, but planting crowns/roots will give you a harvest much more quickly, especially since you should wait until the second year to take many stems to allow the plant to become well established. Plant roots any time of year, about 2 inches below the soil surface and keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
There are many varieties of rhubarb – some with green stems and some with red stems; the green-stemmed varieties and much more vigorous and disease-resistant. You can buy plants from many sources, but it is so much more fun to get starts from neighbors and friends. Since it grows so well in our location, people are usually very willing to share. A stem can be eaten at any time and if a plant is happy (well-watered and fertilized), even very long and robust stems are edible.
Tall flower stalks may emerge and should be cut off unless you have a mature plant that you want to save seeds from because instead of putting energy into producing stems, energy will go into producing flowers.
The strangest thing about rhubarb is how you harvest it – pull and twist a stem away from the center of the plant. If the soil is loose or wet around the plant, you may want to hold the plant down while you take a stem, so as not to pull the whole plant out of the ground.
To store rhubarb, place the stalks in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel, and keep them in the fridge for up to two weeks. To freeze rhubarb, cut the stems into small pieces, and freeze them in a single layer in a sealed freezer bag. Rhubarb will keep in the freezer for up to one year. This versatile plant is mostly known as an ingredient in pies, crumbles and other desserts (it also combines well with many fruits, such as strawberries, peaches and bananas), but it can also be made into a spreadable butter, barbecue sauces, jams and salsas.
The following recipe is given in honor of rhubarb from Julie Kraft, a longtime member of the Sage and Snow Garden Club.
Hamilton Rhubarb Cake
1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 3 eggs, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ cup hot water, vanilla to taste, 1 cube sliced butter, 2-3 cups chopped rhubarb, 1-2 cups brown sugar. Lightly pack sugar in bottom of a 9x13-inch cake pan. Add rhubarb and butter. Cream eggs and sugar. Combine water, vanilla, baking powder, and flour (will be runny) and pour over rhubarb. Bake at 350 degrees 1 hour.