Rhubarb brings back memories as a child of my gran giving me a stick of rhubarb and a bag with some sugar in as a treat, and me dipping it in and eating it raw. It was never one of my favourite tastes but it is such a useful plant to have in the garden as it gives a tasty crop every year without much work, and we often have enough to freeze some for the winter and provide a weekly dessert from just one plant. It also has many health benefits, which I think makes it especially helpful for older people like myself to maintain our health.
How can I use rhubarb?
I use rhubarb to flavour gin (with ginger) for Christmas presents, in baking (crumbles, pies and cakes) and desserts eg rhubarb fool, in my smoothies (raw), and it tastes good with some savoury food as well. It is a vegetable really, even though we usually use it as a fruit. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from River Cottage makes a nice ketchup with it. I will often pair it with spices and ingredients such as cumin, balsamic vinegar, garlic, mustard and onion in a dish. I love a fruit taste with meat and fish. I find that when I am using rhubarb for a pie or crumble that a lot of water tends to come out of it when sugar is added and it is cooked. I therefore tend to sprinkle some semolina or cornflour and mix with it if using it raw in these kinds of dishes. It just thickens it a bit and stops pies leaking. A word of warning, it is best not to eat too much rhubarb in one go as it has been used as a laxative in the past.
The leaves are great to use as a mulch around other plants and I will put them around the roots in my pots in summer to stop dehydration of the soil when I harvest rhubarb. That way I do not have to water as much. You can make an insect repellent with the leaves too by soaking them in water.
Do not be tempted to eat the leaves as they are poisonous. They contain large amounts of oxalic acid which can lead to kidney failure and stomach upsets. Rhubarb is also toxic to pets. I used to think that you could not put the leaves in the compost bin but I now do as the oxalic acid breaks down over the year that it takes for my compost to decompose.
How do I grow rhubarb?
I transplanted my rhubarb to my garden as a crown from my allotment, but it can be grown from seed as well. The good thing about starting with a crown (which you can buy from garden centres and other shops or get a friend to split one of theirs) is that you can get a crop pretty quickly. I did not harvest any in the first year that I grew it in my garden as I wanted the plant to be strong. The second year I had enough to make a number of dishes and to freeze for use during the winter.
Crowns should be planted between October and November or February and March. If you are dividing a crown or planting more than one, they should be planted 3 feet apart.
Some years when I had many rhubarb plants on the allotment, I would force rhubarb which means it comes earlier than usual and is more tender. I did this by placing a bucket over the top of the crown with a stone on top. The trouble is if you force rhubarb, you are not supposed to pick any more rhubarb from the plant for a couple of years and so as I only have a couple of plants now, I just grow it as normal. If I see flowers starting to form, I take them out as this means that it is bolting. I keep doing it until the rhubarb returns to normal, which it does.
The crown will die away in winter and I just cover it with some well-rotted manure or compost to give it a feed. I have noticed that my rhubarb does better if I water it often during the summer, but besides that it needs little care.
Does rhubarb suffer from pests?
Sometimes rhubarb can suffer from eelworms which can cause it to struggle to grow and it may have mis-shaped leaves. The crown can also rot which causes really small sticks and dull leaves. If this does occur the best thing to do is to burn the rhubarb crown and not let it near your compost, and to plant rhubarb in a different area so that any new plant is not infected. I have grown rhubarb for about 15 years and have never had any problems. It gets an odd nibble on the leaves now and again.
How do I harvest rhubarb?
When I want some rhubarb, I will twist a stalk off at the base of the crown. I never cut it as this can lead to disease infecting the plant. When I pick rhubarb, I always make sure that I leave at least 3 or 4 stalks on each plant. This keeps the plant strong and able to produce more stalks. Even if it still seems to be growing, it is best to stop harvesting rhubarb in July as this helps it build up enough energy to crop the following year.
My one crown seems to have separated into 3 separate plants now and you will find that your rhubarb plant will grow bigger each year if you look after it and feed it. The thin red stalks are sweeter than the thicker, green stalks but all are fine for cooking with. I just use a bit more sugar or honey with the green stalks. My mother used to peel all rhubarb, but I just wash and chop it, and if there are any really fibrous bits of skin that come to light as I cut it, I will just throw them away.
How can I preserve rhubarb?
If I pick some and I am not able to freeze it or use it that day, I tend to wrap it in a plastic carrier bag and store it in the fridge as it stays crisp for about 5 days that way. I have found that it goes limp if I just place it in the fridge without wrapping it. Rhubarb is easy to freeze and does not need blanching first. I chop it thinly and then freeze laid out on a tray before putting into a bag so that it does not all stick together and I can easily take out the amount I need. I have never bottled it, but I think I am going to give it a go this year.
What are the health benefits of rhubarb?
Rhubarb has many health benefits. It is really good for your heart as it increases the level of good cholesterol (HDL). It is also full of vitamin K which is good for brain health, bone health, tissue repair and the nervous system, with some studies suggesting it protects against Alzheimer’s. The vitamin A it contains helps with cell damage in the skin and apparently keeps it looking younger, and rhubarb can also relieve constipation and aid digestion. Studies have also shown that it helps reduce inflammation and has an anti-viral impact, and can even reduce the chance of cancer cells forming and is full of antioxidants. Although it is low in calories, the amount of sugar needed to make it palatable will often prevent it from helping with weight loss, unfortunately. One of the reasons that I eat a lot of rhubarb (and often put it raw in smoothies) is that it helps with macular degeneration which runs in my family, and it helps with eyesight as it contains beta-carotene.
So you can see that besides being an easy crop to grow in the garden each year, with little cost, rhubarb can add taste to your cooking and baking and has many beneficial health benefits. I will be putting some rhubarb inspired recipes up on the website over the next few weeks. What is your favourite way to eat rhubarb, and did you realise it was so good for you?