Be like Rhubarb – the Unsung Hero of the Garden.
Spring has Sprung. It has begun. (OK well I started this blog in April and didn’t manage to get back to it until now but you get the point. Stay tuned for my blog on procrastination sometime in the distant future bahahaha!) In case you haven’t noticed the rhubarb is already going to seed. Yup its already big and leafy, with it tall lacey blooms, and a tad out of control. But that’s ok, because I really love rhubarb.
Rhubarb is such a cool plant. It unabashedly takes up space. It stretches its brightly colored stalks up to support its huge, rippled, umbrella shaped leaves that provide shade and shelter to its resilient roots. It shoots its massive flower stalks up high with clusters of tiny white flowers bursting open to reveal gracefully dangling seeds that shimmer and dance in the breeze. When the cold of winter returns rhubarb's stalks and leaves soften in the frost to drape over its own crown and rhizomes, like a thick quilt sheltering it from the harsh cold and snow.
I have fond childhood memories of picking rhubarb stalks from the back alley and dipping it in sugar as I munched its tart, sweet, cool stalk. I remember its huge fluffy leaves forming mounding plants in the farmyard. I remember my mother chopping and freezing the red stems to for winter recipes.
I remember crisp flakey pie crusts filled with tart creamy centers. I remember cold bowls of ice cream topped with warm scoops of rhubarb compote. I remember deep, steaming, pans of rhubarb crisp hot from the oven. I remember that no one paid any attention to this underdog of the garden and yet how much joy these neglected members of the yard brought. Rhubarb made us happy. It still makes me happy today.
You see Rhubarb is an interesting and underappreciated plant. It is a member of the buckwheat family thought to from originate China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Siberia [3,4,5,6,]. The root of the rhubarb plant has been recorded in historical herbal texts dated as early as 206 and 2700 B.C. [4,6].
The famed explorer Marco Polo wrote about rhubarb in his travels through Asia, and it was brought to Europe along the silk road during the Middle Ages
[4,5,6]. There are records of rhubarb appearing in Italian gardens as early as 1608, it was grown across Europe by the 1700s, and found its way to America around 1720, with the first printed recipe for the stalky plant appearing around 1806-7 [4,5,6].
Coming from its harsh, cold origins it is no wonder that the Farmers Almanac states that rhubarb grows best in climates with cold weather below -40°C in the winter and 24°C in summer ! Seriously below -40°C. That is one tough plant.
Actually, a vegetable, rhubarb is often thought of as a fruit. Most commonly used in jams, sauces, and desserts, rhubarb is commonly used as a savoury in many cuisines [4,5]. There are over 60 varieties with some reaching 5 feet tall [1,3,4,6]! I gotta get me one of those. (Stay tuned for a future blog on short term obsessions and how to manage them.) Rhubarb stalks are low in calories, a good source of potassium, calcium, vitamin C and vitamin K. It is a great source of fibre and high in antioxidants. Just avoid the leaves as they are high in oxalates. Most of all rhubarb is just tasty.
Rhubarb emerges earlier that almost anything else in the spring. It can be seen poking through the snow with the crocuses.
It can survive in low moisture conditions, often managing on only the snow melt. Rhubarb thrives despite neglect and grows even better if fortified with manure [6,7]. So basically, it grows better when you give it spit*. (*My mom said I am not allowed to say that other word but they rhyme, and in French it is merde, which she said pretty regularly thinking we didn’t know what it meant. We knew mom, we knew.)
You can find rhubarb in abandoned yards, along neglected alleys, behind old buildings and pretty much anywhere someone tucked in a root decades ago. It remains there flourishing cheerily among the weeds, forgotten for generations, steadfastly continuing to re-emerge every spring, and bloom wherever it was planted.
Rhubarb was cultivated on the prairies, in homestead gardens, by families who looked forward to it being the first fresh produce after a long harsh winter. It was found in almost every kitchen garden from one end of the country to the other. Grown in every province and territory, it is as widespread as it is tough. But rhubarb has another amazing feature. It can grow in the dark. I am not kidding.
In the short dark days of winter homesteaders could keep rhubarb roots in pots or bags. These roots could be chilled in protected spots like unheated barns, or dug into manure piles, to provide a dormancy period. Then the roots could be moved to warmer spots like the cool, dark of a root cellar, and forced into growing by candlelight through the winter . Yes, by candlelight. That is how little light it required to emerge. It shoots up, racing skyward as it reaches for the dim light of the candle, with its tall stalks topped by curled fist shaped leaves waiting to unfurl into their elephant ear shaped fans.
In fact, rhubarb forced to grow this way develops with such vigour and speed that the process is audible . As in you can hear it grow. I am not kidding you can actually hear the rhubarb grow! (See link below to hear rhubarb growing.) It pops and snaps and cracks as it is reaching through the dark toward the light. It is so strong, and so determined, that it just charges ahead, reaching up, and growing strong and tall. In fact, rhubarb grown by forcing it in this way is redder and sweeter that plants grown in the garden . It loses the bitter, sour edge to its flavor. It is still grown this way commercially, and considered a delicacy for fine restaurants and markets. Now that is one amazing plant.
So why you may ask do I want you to be like rhubarb?
Cause you are amazing too!
I want you to grow wherever you are planted.
I want you to reach through the dark toward the light.
Even if the only light is a dim, flickering candle.
I want you to stretch yourself and reach toward your goals.
I want you to take up space as you grow.
I want you to be loud. I want you to make noise and snap and crackle and pop as you unfurl.
No matter if you are growing through the weeds, or in a run-down alley, or in a dark damp cellar, just keep growing.
When it seems like you are being spit* on grow stronger.
If you feel forgotten or neglected or abandoned just know, that like rhubarb, you can still be bright, and provide shelter, and strength, and beauty to the world around you as you bloom.
I want you to remember that we can avoid becoming sour and bitter through our challenges if we focus on the light and just keep growing. Because as we grow through the dark, and the spit*, even if it is only by the dimmest flickering of light, we become brighter and sweeter.
So go when times get tough be like rhubarb… make some noise and grow.
Meanwhile go outside and find a rhubarb plant. There is always one somewhere in your neighbourhood that isn’t being used up. Ask if you can pick some. Pull out some stalks, snap off the leaves, and go make something delicious.
I will include some links to some of my favourite rhubarb recipes below.
I’d love to hear some of your rhubarb stories and memories. You can send them to me at the email found on the contact page.
Meanwhile I am going to go out and throw some manure and water on my rhubarb plant, so I have some extra to freeze for this winter.
If you are feeling like you are having trouble growing and thriving, we want to help. Call us for support or contact us with thorough our contact from at the bottom of the page.
I’ve tried most of these recipes and they are amazing. I have learned to love the beef recipe in the following link. I make mine in a slow cooker and serve it over rice.
Beef with Rhubarb
15 Surprising Savory Rhubarb Recipes
Easy rhubarb and elderflower jam
I give this cake 5 stars. So delicious.
Rhubarb cake with elderflower drizzle icing
I make this regularly. It is delicious on toast.
Easy Rhubarb Butter
Preserving rhubarb recipes include canning, pickling, drying, fermenting, and freezing.
I freeze my rhubarb without blanching and use my vacuum sealer to keep it fresh. I also can and dry rhubarb for use later. It lasts me until spring and then just like the homesteaders my faithful rhubarb comes up and graces me with a whole new crop. I hope you enjoyed this article and find some ways to incorporate both the spirit and the reality of rhubarb into your life.
If you want to hear more about the sound of rhubarb growing or how to force rhubarb, check out these videos.
If you want to see how to force rhubarb outside check out this video.
 Boeckmann, C. (2023) Planting, growing, and Harvesting Rhubarb. Almanac. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://www.almanac.com/plant/rhubarb
 Craybill, A. (2016). Your Winter Rhubarb Was Grown in the Dark (and Harvested by Candlelight!). Food 52. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://food52.com/blog/15812-your-winter-rhubarb-was-grown-in-the-dark-and-harvested-by-candlelight
 Duncan, D. Rhubarb Varieties. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://highaltituderhubarb.com/rhubarb-varieties/#:~:text=Firstly%2C%20there%20are%2060%2D100,often%20without%20telling%20their%20customers
 Food History. The History of Rhubarb. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://www.kitchenproject.com/history/Rhubarb/
 Rhubarb. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rhubarb#:~:text=in%20central%20Asia.-,Rhubarb%20(genus%20Rheum)%20is%20a%20common%20name%20for%20about%2050,is%20commonly%20grown%20across%20Canada
 West Coast Seeds. About Rhubarb. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://www.westcoastseeds.com/blogs/wcs-academy/about-rhubarb
 Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum. Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension. Retrieved June 10th 2023 from https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/rhubarb-rheum-rhabarbarum/#:~:text=Rhubarb%20is%20a%20hardy%20perennial%20in%20the%20buckwheat%20family%20(Polygonaceae)
Wikipedia contributors. Rhubarb. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. June 8, 2023, 13:06 UTC. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rhubarb&oldid=1159131476. Accessed June 10, 2023.