Researchers have found records of rhubarb being used for medicinal purposes as far back as 2700 B.C. in China. I don’t use it as a medicine but I can tell you that there is no better medicine than a big slice of rhubarb pie and a glass of ice cold milk. I will explore the history and cultivation of this ancient plant and share some of my favorite recipes of what many refer to as the “Pie Plant”.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 11, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published artices may not be able to respond to your questions.)
During his studies of Chinese culture, Bjorn Kjellgren from the University of Stockholm compiled the following facts regarding rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum):
Rhubarb was given to the emperor of the Lung dynasty (557-559) to cure a persistent fever.
During the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) it was used to cure plagues.
Marco Polo spoke at length about rhubarb during his accounts of his travels throughout China. Due to these accounts, rhubarb was brought to Europe through Venice - an important port with trade from China and the Far East in 1608. During this period rhubarb was used for medicinal purposes only.
In 1778 rhubarb is recorded for the first time as a food plant. It was used as a filling for tarts and pies.
Its first appearance in the U.S. was in Maine in 1790. The plant quickly spread throughout New England. By 1882 it was being sold throughout the region in produce markets.
I’ve been growing rhubarb for over 40 years. The root stock from which my plants were started are over 60-plus years old. They were taken from plants started by my dad when I was a young child.
Rhubarb is a cool-season perennial which is very winter hardy. It’s produced from crowns consisting of rhizomes and buds.
After the growing season, the crowns go dormant; temperatures below 40 degrees F are required to stimulate bud break and subsequent growth.
Shoots and new growth continue to appear throughout the growing season. As long as the temperatures remain cool (below 90 degrees F). At temps higher than that, new growth slows or stops completely, as the temps’ lower growth resumes.
Generally rhubarb can not be grown in warmer climates. The higher temperatures cause sparse leaf growth and spindly stems.
It grows best in fertile well drained soil with plenty of organic material. It will tolerate most soils pH but produces best in the pH range of 6.0-6.8.
Plant the roots in early spring. Space the roots 24 to 48 inches apart. Large amounts of compost or composted manure added to the planting hole is recommended.
Place the crown bud 2 inches below the soil surface. Water thoroughly after planting. Mulch the plants with an organic mulch to deter weeds and conserve moisture. Topdress with a ¼ cup of 5-10-10 fertilizer at planting.
During the first growing season do not harvest the stalks. This will allow the plant to photosynthesize fully to ensure strong root growth. During the second season a light picking is fine if the plant is vigorous.
I have found that an early spring application of a balanced slow-release fertilizer (10-10-10 or 12-12-12) works well. I also top dress with dried chicken manure in mid May. Every 2 to 3 weeks during the growing season I apply 2 or 3 gallons of alfalfa tea to each plant.
Rhubarb will occasionally send up seed stalks with flowers. You will want to remove these at ground level. This will direct all of the plants energy toward foliage growth rather than flowering.
The stalks are best harvested when they are small and tender. Grab the stalk at its base, twist and pull at the same time. The stem will separate cleanly from the root. Remove the leaves with a sharp knife.
This is a very hardy plant, once established it requires very little care. Make sure they get adequate water during long dry periods.
There are very few insect problems with rhubarb. The one insect that you are most likely to see on this plant is the Rhubarb curculio. This is a beetle that bores into the stalks and lays its eggs. This insect is very attracted to dock a weed prevalent in wide areas of the U.S. Remove any dock you might see in your yard or garden as soon as it appears. If you do discover this insect on your plants, treat with insecticides. Burn any infected plants parts to kill the eggs.
Dock, a weed that attracts the Rhubarb curculio
Another use for rhubarb
Rhubarb leaves makes an excellent organic insecticide, it’s especially effective on leaf insects such as cabbage caterpillars, aphids, slugs etc.
Recipe for Rhubarb Insectcide
You will need 3 pounds of shredded rhubarb leaves. Boil in one gallon of water for 30 minutes. Cool and strain.
Bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil, add 4 ounces soap ends (a good use for leftover soap in the shower); remove from heat and stir until soap is dissolved. Let cool. Add to the leaf mixture and mix thoroughly pour into a spray bottle and spray mixture onto infected leaves.
Here are some of my favorite rhubarb recipes.
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie shell 1 1/2 cups sugar 1/4 cups flour all purpose 3/4 teaspoon nutmeg 3 slightly beaten eggs 4 cups sliced fresh rhubarb, or thawed and drained frozen sliced rhubarb 1/2 cup all purpose flour 1/4 cup sugar 1/3 cup butter
Prepare the pie shell. In large mixing bowl, stir together the 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1/4 cup flour and nutmeg. Add the eggs and blend well. Gently stir in the rhubarb. Turn the mixture into pie shell. In a small bowl, stir together the 1/2 cup flour and 1/4 cup sugar. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle over top of pie. Bake in 400 degree oven 20 minutes with edge covered with foil then remove foil. Bake 20 minutes more.
INGREDIENTS • 3 cups diced rhubarb • 1 cup white sugar • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour • 1 cup packed light brown sugar • 1 cup quick cooking oats • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour • 1 cup butter
DIRECTIONS 1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9x13 inch baking dish. 2. In a large mixing bowl combine rhubarb, white sugar, and 3 tablespoons flour. Stir well and spread evenly into baking dish. Set aside. 3. In a large mixing bowl combine brown sugar, oats, and 1 1/2 cups flour. Stir well then cut in butter or margarine until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle mixture over rhubarb layer. 4. Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
About Paul Rodman
Paul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program.
Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic Gardening.com web site.
He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years.
He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan.
His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.