Fun and interesting facts about rhubarb.

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The rhubarb in the community garden is absolutely monstrous this year – it shot up so quickly I barely had time to blink during the transition between fat sprouts to gargantuan wide leaves and thick, harvest-ready stalks.  I’m dreaming about the rhubarb cake I am going to bake….

Rhubarb gardeners will know most of these fun facts, but if you’re new to growing (or eating!) it, you might enjoy this little list of rhubarb trivia:

  • Rhubarb is in the Polygonaceae family, which includes buckwheat and sorrel.
  • Rhubarb’s binomial name is Rheum rhabarbarum – the specific epithet is from the Latin and means “root of the barbarians.”
  • Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, chock full of more oxalic acid than humans and animals may safely consume.  Small amounts of oxalic acid are found in the stalks, which we eat – the acidity gives rhubarb its “tang.”  (You’ll find small amounts of oxalic acid present in sorrel and spinach, as well).
  • Contrary to popular belief, even though rhubarb leaves are poisonous, they actually can be composted.  The acids in them will break down like any other natural chemical found in plants and will not cause the compost to become toxic.  Just make sure you chop those gigantic leaves up so that they’re easier for your composter to break down quickly.  And you might not want to put too many in the composter at once, as not to upset the balance of the carbon to nitrogen ratio.
  • The part of rhubarb that we eat is the petiole of the leaf.
  • Rhubarb is a perennial. And it is supremely tough and cold-hardy, so you usually have to do something really, really horrific to kill it once it becomes established.  Like drive over it with a truck.  Or set it on fire.  And it may even survive those things.
  • Rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, but we treat it like a fruit in cooking and often eat it in desserts.  In 1947, the United States gave it the legal designation as a “fruit” to avoid the high tariffs imposed on imported vegetables. (It was cheaper at the time to bring fruits into the country).
  • You’ll sometimes hear rhubarb referred to as the “pie plant.”  If you’ve ever eaten rhubarb pie (or even better, strawberry rhubarb pie), it’s not difficult to be a supporter of this nickname.
  • If your rhubarb stalks are green, they’re not underripe or something.  Some cultivars have greener stalks than others.  The red colour is due to the presence of anthocyanins, the same chemicals that make the leaves of some deciduous trees turn red in the autumn.
  • Rhubarb root has been used as a laxative in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
  • Rhubarb reached Europe via the Silk Road in the 14th century.  The plants were brought to North America by European settlers in the early 1800’s.
  • If you like to dye textiles with natural plant-based dyes, rhubarb leaves make a good mordant (just be really careful while handling them!).  The roots will produce a brown dye.
  • In the United Kingdom, it is common to force an early rhubarb crop under pots in January and February.  A second crop is planted outdoors for later harvest.
  • Store harvested rhubarb stalks in the fridge and use them up as soon as you can.  Rhubarb freezes well so that’s an option if you have a huge harvest.
  • Do not harvest rhubarb in the heat, as the stalks will quickly wilt.
  • Speaking of harvesting rhubarb – pull or cut?  Always pull!  If you cut the stalks, you might encourage rot.  And never, ever, take more than half of the stalks of the plant at a time.
  • If your rhubarb is damaged by a late spring frost, you can remove most of the stalks (leave at least 3 to 5 on the plant) and allow the plant to regrow – it should produce another crop shortly.  Don’t eat the frozen stalks.
  • Rhubarb has really pretty, dramatic flowers – and as long as you don’t allow them to set seed, you can enjoy the flowers for a very brief time.  You can keep harvesting the rhubarb stalks while the plant flowers – the quality of the produce does not suffer.  If the plants set seed, however, the energy that would be devoted to the creation of delicious stalks is then diverted to the seeds, which you don’t want.  You’ll end up with smaller stalks as a result.   So if you want flowers AND yummy stalks, watch carefully to remove the blooms at just the right time.
  • The word “rhubarb” may also refer to a loud dispute; in the 1940’s, it was commonly used as a descriptor of the on- and off-field shenanigans of fans and players at raucous baseball games.  In 1930’s theatre, the repetition of the word “rhubarb” by stage actors was used to simulate background conversation.
  • (UPDATED MAY 2018) – I found a fantastic audio file of the sounds forced rhubarb makes as it grows – how fun!  Check it out here.

What are your favourite rhubarb recipes?  (Please go ahead and post links – I’m always on the hunt for more!).  Here are a couple of my favourites, from my (former) blog at GRIT.com:  Rhubarb Coconut Muffins and Rhubarb Oatmeal Cake

 

 

Flowery blurbs, volume 8.

Welcome to another Flowery Blurbs…or, as it may be more appropriately titled, I’ve Got a Mountain of Randomly Scribbled Notes on My Desk and I’m Bursting to Share Some of These Ideas with You.  Not all of these Blurbs will be about growing, but they’re all about plants, in some way, shape or form.  (Think of it as a botanical mashup). So, grab a nice cup of hot tea and ENJOY.

  • A co-worker recently shared this tip with me:  if you’ve purchased a large chunk of gingerroot at the grocery store and you don’t use it all right away, pop it in the freezer.  To prep the root, leave the peel on and chop it into more manageable bits, then throw the pieces in some plastic wrap.  Shortly after I received this excellent gingerroot storage guidance, I read about another way to preserve ginger for future use:  place the root (whole and unpeeled) in a small jar, and completely douse it in vodka.  Put a snug-fitting lid on the jar and store in the fridge.  When you need the root, just haul it out and hack off a chunk, then put the remaining portion back in the vodka.  Of course, this swell idea only works if you don’t have any other plans for your booze.  😉
  • If you’re growing lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) and you’re not using it all in salads, try making a natural weed killer.  Pull a few generous handfuls of the green and pulverize it in an old blender or roughly chop it with a kitchen knife.  Add water to completely cover the mashed pieces and let the whole thing steep for several days.  Strain off the plant parts, retaining the green tea.  More than one application may be required to kill weeds, but it might be worth a try!  One further note:  if you’re adding lamb’s quarters to your own diet, make sure you don’t eat too much of it in one sitting!  The very reason that it works to kill weeds is due to its content of oxalic acid, the same toxin that rhubarb leaves contain.  Now, before you freak out, consider that spinach also has a good amount of oxalic acid in it as well – and we all know how healthy spinach leaves are for you.  “Everything in moderation,” that’s all!  (But don’t eat rhubarb leaves.  Not even in moderation.  They’re really, really poisonous).
  • I’ve been busy researching plants that are useful for dyeing wool and other fibres and I was surprised to find that beetroot is NOT a good dyestuff.  I know, I know, hard to believe, isn’t it?  Beet juice will not actually stain your clothing – it cannot fix to fibres due to the size of the molecules it is made of.  I’m not sure I want to test this theory out, however – especially not on my good white blouse!  My advice:  keep the OxyClean handy anyway!
  • Quick:  do you know what a Brix refractometer is? This space-age-sounding gadget is a tool that measures the sugar content in fruit, vegetables, juices and wines.  Using a Brix refractometer can help out a great deal when it comes to perfectly timing the harvest of a particular crop.  You may be interested in trying one out even if you’re not growing for market or u-pick (there’s something to be said for harvesting crops at their peak, after all).  Take a look at one and read all about how to use it here.
  •  If you are growing elders (Sambucus spp.) in your garden, you probably know that the berries are edible and are often used to make jam, wine, or juice.  But did you know that you can also eat the flowers?  Apparently you can make fritters out of them, among other delicious things.  This is new to me, but I’m itching to try it out, especially as I’ve found this recipe for elderflower fritters that has an accompanying Greek yogourt and honey sauce.  (Don’t get me started on Greek yogourt, I’m hopelessly addicted to the stuff!).  Have you ever eaten elderflower fritters or anything else made of elderflowers?

  • Finally, Olds College has hosted a second lecture in its “Hort Week 2012”  speaker series – this one was a fantastic foray into Residential Landscape Basics, offered by Angela Sommers.  View it for yourself here.