Today’s post is going to be all about rhubarb. So if you’re not about that - or you specifically (and weirdly) hate rhubarb with a deep seething passion, maybe skip this one.
What is rhubarb, anyways?
The word “rhubarb” comes from the name of the plant species rheum rhubarbarum, with rheum having Persian origin, and rhubarbarum having French/Greek origin meaning “foreign rhubarb”. Which, of course, breaks the cardinal rule of “a definition of a word cannot include the name of the word” - so way to go, French Greeks. Interestingly, there are several species that are considered rhubarb, but only one of them bears the name rhubarbarum. Now that’s some knowledge probably no one needs!
Rhubarb - the plant itself - is a perennial vegetable, the stalk of which is used in foods in typically dessert-like purposes due to the intensely tart taste. There are other non-dessert uses for rhubarb, which we have yet to fully explore, but they do an absolute bang-up job as a dessert ingredient.
There are plenty of resources out there that can go into the details of how best to cultivate and grow rhubarb plants, so I’m not going to waste your time with any of that. I will say - anecdotally of course - that it has got to be one of the easiest, most reliable plant you can include in your garden. You can also very easily scale up your rhubarb production any external inputs, as you can very easily dig up a rhubarb crown and viciously hack it into little baby crowns and replanting those as individual plants. That’s exactly what we did last fall, shortly after moving in.
When we first moved in, there was one “sort-of” rhubarb plant that was growing on the property (not far from this image), but certainly didn’t look particularly intentional or successful. Rhubarb was one of the crops I grew at our previous home with great success, and so I definitely wanted it to feature at our new place as well. So when someone nearby posted online that they were looking to offload some rhubarb they had dug up, I was all too eager to swing by and acquire ownership of about a half dozen rhubarb crowns.
What you see in the above image is the end-result, 9 months later (picture taken Jun 20 2022). Worth noting that we’ve taken a small harvest from all of the rhubarb plants shown - other than the one at the bottom of the image, which was transplanted this spring, and is only now taking off.
We also have two…ahem…volunteer plants. Somehow they survived our work converting the space into a kitchen garden, and are now (somewhat annoyingly) growing near our cherry tomatoes.
We’ll see how these behave throughout the season - we are hoping the cherry tomato plants grow quite large, so if one plant gets in the way of another, we may be forced to nix the rhubarb - ideally by digging up and transplanting.
Our first harvest
Just the other day, we took our first harvest of the rhubarb plants we started roughly 9 months ago. There’s mixed information out there as to whether you should harvest rhubarb at all in the first year after transplanting, but I’ve honestly never had any issues with harvesting too soon - in fact, these plants were very overcrowded and needed it, so we obliged. Harvest method is simple - twist and pull. General rule of thumb is to take no more than two thirds of the plant’s stalks, so as to leave something behind that can still photosynthesize and store energy for regrowth and eventually the winter.
With the half dozen or so plants we’ve got at the moment - and harvesting roughly half (and not two thirds) of the available stalks, we wound up with what you see in the above image (4 year old daughter Mackenzie for scale). Once we trimmed and chopped, we wound up with 2.5 pounds!
PLEASE NOTE: The leaves are toxic to human (and most pet) consumption, so compost the leaves immediately (or use them to make a compost tea - future blog post about that) or otherwise dispose of them.
Now, you can munch on the stalks as-is if you’re not overly sensitive to sourness (my mom always liked dipping the stalk in a small bowl of sugar), but there are a LOT of uses for rhubarb that go beyond simple snacking. Go ahead and google it, I won’t bore you with the minutiae here. Although I will speak about the threefold uses that 2.5 pounds of rhubarb were put towards…
With the rhubarb we harvested, I was able to produce three separate things with decent quantity:
Chopped rhubarb for freezing and use later
I found a recipe online for making rhubarb juice, which I thought might be a nice treat for the daughter (and who am I kidding, myself too). Basically toss 500g of rhubarb into a saucepan, add a cup of sugar, and one litre of water. Bring that to a boil, and keep boiling for 15 mins. Once that’s done, pour into a relatively fine strainer (placed over top of a bowl) and what you’re left with is juice concentrate - which you can dilute as much as you care to.
You’re also left with a pile of rhubarb…innards…in the strainer that is essentially all the skin and fiber of the rhubarb plant that cannot break down simply by boiling. Presumably the person who wrote the recipe I used would just throw this stuff out, and trust me I was tempted. But I also thought, “hey why don’t I try something” and promptly slapped that frankly gross-looking mess onto a baking pan with wax paper and dehydrated it in our oven for several hours.
I’m not sure exactly how many hours it spent in the oven - perhaps 5 - and I’m also not sure how many hours it should have spent in the oven. Indeed, saner people may have tossed this mixture out instead of playing God in such a reckless manner. However, the end result was something that I am both ridiculously and surprisingly happy with.
I’m not exactly sure how I could make this look more palatable - but boy howdy does this rhubarb jerky ever taste delicious! I would liken it to those old ”Fruit to Go” bars that us millennial kids always rocked in our lunches - just a leathery, chewy mash of fruit pulp that honestly hits the spot. I have no idea how long this rhubarb jerky will last in the sandwich bag (two main threats being spoilage and eatage), but I’m super pumped I was able to really stretch the harvested rhubarb to the absolute maximum.
For the other rhubarb that wasn’t used in the juice and jerky, I measured out into bags that each hold 2 cups of chopped rhubarb - which is a common amount required for recipes.
All things told, the 2.5 pounds of rhubarb stalks we harvested yielded:
2 full pint jars of rhubarb juice concentrate
1 sandwich bag of rhubarb jerky
8 cups of chopped and frozen rhubarb, split into 4 bags
Honourable mention goes to the rhubarb leaves - which have graciously donated the next two weeks’ of their time submerged in water, slowly rotting and converting the water into a super-charged mixture known as compost tea - but that’s a blog post for another time.
I am really keen on flexing our preserving (canning, freezing, dehydrating, etc) muscles this season as we start to harvest more and more food from our garden beds, and this little experiment was a huge motivational boost!