If you’re looking for a hardy, problem-free perennial to add to your garden, consider rhubarb. While you may think of it as a fruit, given the tart-yet-sweet punch it gives to pies and other desserts, rhubarb is actually a vegetable. Given the right soil and sun conditions, you can easily grow rhubarb from crowns or seeds.
For best results, choose a sunny, out-of-the-way corner of your garden that features compost-rich, well-drained soil. Once the plants are established, you can enjoy the red or green celery-like stalks of rhubarb as a springtime treat in jams, pies or smoothies. Avoid the foliage though; it’s poisonous. Here’s all you need to know to grow rhubarb.
What Is Rhubarb?
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a species of plant in the buckwheat family that is a close relative of garden sorrel. It can be grown as a perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 3 to 8. Characterized by its large leaves and tart-tasting stalks, rhubarb loves cool weather. If you live in a cool climate, rhubarb will likely do well because it requires temperatures below 40 degrees F to come out of dormancy. Cold weather also stimulates bud growth.
It is possible to grow rhubarb as an annual in warmer areas. If you do so, keep in mind that too much heat will result in thinner leaves and stalks. This beautiful, ornamental plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, which is why you need to give it plenty of growing room. It will do best in a back corner of your vegetable garden or another low-traffic area where it can quietly produce year after year.
The red varieties are often preferred for their taste and tenderness, while the green varieties tend to be more productive. If you’ve yet to try rhubarb, the real joy of this hardy perennial is eating its fibrous leaf stalks. Although often mistaken as a fruit, with a composition similar to celery, rhubarb stalks boast a sweet-tart taste that can make your lips pucker.
You can enjoy the look of its leaves but do not eat them. Only rhubarb stalks are edible; the leaves are toxic to animals and humans. They contain a poisonous substance called oxalic acid, which can cause kidney failure if ingested in large amounts. Take care if your rhubarb becomes damaged by frost because The Spruce suggests the stalks may become inedible. “If the stems are not firm and upright, don’t eat them,” they said. “Frost damage can cause the oxalic acid crystals to move into the stalks.”1
The History of Rhubarb
According to the University of Illinois Extension,2 rhubarb is an ancient plant and Chinese rhubarb can be traced back to 2700 B.C. Based on its medicinal properties, it’s believed Chinese doctors employed rhubarb as a body cleansing agent, fever reducer and laxative. NPR3 validates its medicinal use in China and also suggests it has been around for possibly more than 4,000 years.
NPR noted rhubarb was also used in ancient times as a pot cleaner, hair dye and insecticide. Over the years, rhubarb has spread around the world, to Europe, Russia and many other places. It is thought to have arrived in America in the early 1800s.4