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Botanically speaking, the part of rhubarb we eat is indeed a vegetable. That delicious, tangy, brilliantly colored edible is indeed a leaf stalk or more specifically, the petiole, which attaches the plant’s leaf to the rest of the plant. It is not a fruit, unless you ask the food regulators. Decades past, they re-classified this vegetative crop as a fruit – reportedly because it is eaten like a fruit. This mixed classification may be confusing, but it shouldn’t be a game stopper when selecting this easy-to-grow, early-to-harvest garden goodie.
Rhubarb is a striking garden plant. It’s large, toxic, deep green leaves are held on edible stalks about 18-24” above the soil line. The stalks themselves may range from iridescent reds to sparkling greens flecked with burgundy, which make for striking garden color. Even in cooler climates, this hardy perennial can add a bit of tropical flare to the mixed garden bed. But beware, once established, rhubarb likes to spread by rhizome (roots) underground. Like many other perennials, it is easy to divide in spring or fall. Those that are newly planted should be allowed at least one full growing season before anything is harvested from them. Try it in anything from dappled shade to full sun with supplemental summer watering.
In cold climates, rhubarb stems and leaves often melt to the ground during winter, leaving only the crown of the plant and perhaps a few tightly held leaves in view. Mulch the crowns carefully in fall to protect them from exposure. Come late winter or very early spring, often before all frosts have past, new leaves begin to emerge, held above those tasty, crunchy petioles. When this happens, gently clear away any heavier, soggier mulch with a tool like the Big Grip Cultivator. This will help protect the crown of the plant from rotting. Then, as soon as the plant has put on a few leaves – right around the very first days of spring – you may begin harvesting stalks to eat. And, if you’re very lucky, your rhubarb harvest will continue into early June when strawberries begin to ripen. Depending on how hot and dry your gardening season is, rhubarb may begin to become tough or dry come summer. Once it toughens, the stringier stalks become less palatable.
There seem to be two schools of thought around the best way to harvest rhubarb. Some gardeners simply break the petiole from the main plant by force, using no tools at all. Others, myself included, prefer to use a sharp paring knife or bladed garden tool to sever the petiole from at its base.
Once the petiole and leaf is removed from the plant, it is important to remove and discard the leaf itself. Rhubarb leaves are toxic and should not be consumed. Instead, considering overlapping them in layers at the base of the plant where they will help suppress weeds and encourage soil microorganisms to consume them and reincorporate them into your garden soil. Or, just toss them into the compost pile to cook. Then you’re ready to head into the kitchen with your harvest. Consider cooking up something like this simple, tangy-sweet rhubarb-strawberry sauce I grew up eating in spring.
Simple Strawberry-Rhubarb Sauce
2 cups washed rhubarb, leaves removed and discarded
1 cup strawberries, washed and hulled
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar (or to taste)
Vanilla ice cream (optional)
Cut rhubarb into _ inch chunks. If any of the stems have particularly tough, stringy fibers, remove those and dispose of any stalks that are not succulent.
Cut strawberries in half.
Add rhubarb, lemon juice and sugar to a medium saucepan. Heat over medium flame, stirring often at a simmer. The rhubarb will slowly fall apart becoming a stew-like sauce – about 10 minutes.
Once the rhubarb is very soft, add the strawberries. Simmer briefly to warm the berries, but try not to cook them so long they melt into mush.
Remove from heat. Spoon over bowls of vanilla ice cream, enjoy as a dairy-free dessert soup or mix into plain yogurt with roasted nuts for breakfast.