Rhubarb: love it or hate it


When I was growing up in the midwest, rhubarb was a spring treat. This love-it-or-hate-it vegetable (yes, it is botanically a vegetable, not a fruit) congers up fond memories of rhubarb pie, crisp, sauce and jellies, and Mom’s love of gardening. Now, as an adult, it is always in my garden and I share its harvest with anyone who enjoys it or is willing to try.

Rhubarb (rheum rhabarbarum), is a tart cool-season perennial that grows easily in our climate as soon as the temperatures rise into the 40s Fahrenheit, making it one of the earliest spring crops.

Although we eat rhubarb stems, the leaves are poisonous to humans and some animals when consumed. The leaves and even the stalks contain oxalic acid. There is a lower level in the stalk than the leaf and nowhere near enough to be dangerous. The oxalic acid in itself is not a problem, but the leaves also contain anthraquinone glycosides. It is thought that the combination of the two may be the reason for the leaves to be poisonous. There are many plants which produce toxins in the leaf for protection against insects and insect larvae.

Carefully consider location before planting this long-lived perennial. Rhubarb does best planted in full sun, even though it can tolerate part shade. It requires deep, fertile well-drained soil and yields best with plentiful, consistent moisture. Plant dormant crowns as soon as you can work the soil in spring, planting 1 to 3 inches deep and 2 to 3 feet apart. Mulch to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

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