Rhubarb is an easy to grow perennial that grows the best where the weather is cool for part of the year. It is one of the first crops that come up in the spring and is commonly baked into pies and other sweet dishes that need some tartness, such as muffins. Rhubarb has also been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times and the name “rhubarb” comes from the Latin rha barbarum, “Rha” being the ancient name for the VolgaRiver in Russia where the plant was native, and “Barbarum” denoting the people of the area whom the Romans considered barbarians.
Rhubarb is generally used as a fruit in dessert dishes but rhubarb has a savory side and can be used in sauces for meats and in braising. In fact, in 1947 a New York court stated that since rhubarb is used primarily in the way a fruit is used, it is therefore a fruit. Obviously the part of the rhubarb plant in question, the part used for culinary purposes, the leaf stalk, is within the bounds of the vegetative part of the plant. The fruit of the rhubarb is a sort of winged seed that grows on a stalk after the plant flowers. There are in many ways to cook rhubarb though and its versatility should be explored.
The cultivation of rhubarb involves planting the roots that have been divided from a parent plant. You can find rhubarb roots at most garden centers or you could just plant roots that a friend dug up for you from their own stock. The rootstock should be dug so that there are plenty of roots on the plant to help it get started. Rhubarb seeds will grow if planted but this is not a great way to start the plants as the seeds will probably not come back true to the parent plant. Seed propagation of rhubarb will more than likely result in stunted plants or plants with stalks that are stringy and flavorless.
The plants should be planted in a hole approximately the size of a five gallon bucket and the hole should be filled with a good mix of compost, soil and organic matter. The plants should be spaced 24 to 48 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart. The beds that the rhubarb is grown in should be slightly raised to provide for good drainage. Mulching the plants with compost or straw will keep weeds down and will ultimately feed the plants as well.
It will take a few years for the rhubarb plants to mature enough for any significant harvesting. Rhubarb will produce for years after it is established but it should be dug around every 5 years or so to trim the number of buds. This will help keep the plants vigorous and you can also separate the plants at this time to produce more rhubarb plants. One thing to keep in mind about rhubarb is that only the stalks are edible. The leaves contain large amounts of oxalic acid that can damage the kidneys and are toxic.
Rhubarb is also somewhat decorative and can be used to border a garden or can be grown in other spots in the yard to fill in a blank space. Rhubarb has many uses beyond the traditional dessert and will produce for years. It is a great addition to any garden.