Ahh…rhubarb. It’s one of the first crops of the spring. A sure sign that spring really has arrived, it starts sending up its first green shoots as soon as the ground begins to warm, usually in April in our neck of the woods.
Don’t know what rhubarb is? Well, you’re not alone. Here in Ohio’s Amish Country, most people are quite familiar with the plant. Most people with a garden will have a clump of rhubarb somewhere on the property. The wide triangular leaves of this rhizome are poisonous, but the stalks have a unique tart taste that makes wonderful pies, cakes, jams. salads and many other tasty recipes.
Rhubarb is said to be a very “old” plant, meaning that documented knowledge of the plant goes back as far as 2,700 years in China. The roots were said to have medicinal value and were a prized commodity. In his travels, Marco Polo became acquainted with rhubarb and soon the roots of Chinese rhubarb were traded in Italy. Interest in the plant began to spread throughout Europe. Seeds or rootstock were brought to America with the early pioneer farmer. Cultivation and use of the stalks as a food grew as sugar became more readily available as a sweetener.
How to grow Rhubarb
Rhubarb is a cool season crop and is well-suited for Canada and the northern United States. Winter time temperatures must be below 40 degrees to break its dormancy period. Harvesting can begin as soon as the stalks are between a half inch or an inch in width. The more you harvest, the more the plant will yield.
It likes well-drained slightly acidic soils with an abundance of organic matter. The recommended fertilizer is well-aged manure. Since no herbicides can be used, weeds can be a problem and should be addressed by diligent hand-weeding and hoeing. Rhubarb is relatively pest and disease-free.
Our own rhubarb patch was started from the seeds of a neighbor’s plant. Rhubarb will grow a rather unsightly seed head which many people cut off before it reaches maturity. Leaving the heads on the plant also seem to strain the vigor and decrease the yield. Alternately, roots can be dug and transplanted to start a patch.
A word of caution: If you go looking for rhubarb, don’t confuse it with the weeds that grow along the road sides. This is Burdock, a weed that is considered toxic! It looks similar but is not what you are looking for. You can tell by the leaves – rhubarb has smooth leaves and burdock leaves have woolly undersides. It will grow into an annoying perennial weed that spreads quickly and produces cockle burrs that will attach themselves to your clothes, your hair and your dog. Don’t let this get going in your garden.
Recipe for Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Here’s the best part! At our Der Dutchman and Dutch Valley restaurants, we make rhubarb-cream cheese cookies, coffee cake and the most popular of all, rhubarb crumb pies. Rhubarb has many delicious uses but because of its strong tart flavor, it requires large amounts of sugar. Often, bakers will mix in strawberries to lessen the tartness. Below is a Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie recipe from our 40th Anniversary Cookbook contributed by on of our salad cooks, Clara I. Miller.
1 pint fresh strawberries
2 cups sliced fresh rhubarb
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind or 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Make (or buy) enough pie crust for a double crust pie:
1 layer to line your pie shell, 9 inches in diameter
1 layer to form your top pie crust (or make a topping of crumbs with butter, brown sugar and flour)
Combine the sugars, flour and lemon; Add the fresh fruit and toss together. Add the mixture to your unbaked pie shell and cover with the second the top crust. Pinch together the edges and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 50 minutes. Enjoy warm with a dollop of vanilla ice cream!