Rhubarb

The rhubarb is easy to grow, with little care.

BY WES AND CYNDI ALEXANDER Between the two of us we have lived in ten of the 48 contiguous United States throughout our lifetimes. The basics of life vary by geographic regions of the United States. For instance blue crabs and oysters are common seafood menu items south of the Mason-Dixon Line, while whitefish and lake perch rule the roost in Michigan. Garden vegetables differ also. A garden in the south is not complete without okra, sweet potatoes and butter beans. Here in Michigan, parsnips, raspberries and rhubarb thrive in every garden. One day, while living in Virginia, we were pleasantly surprised to find rhubarb in our local grocery store. We picked up a small bundle with a big price tag and went to check out at the cashier. The woman ringing us up was stumped and asked what this vegetable we were purchasing was. When Wes replied, “Rhubarb”, her next question was, “what on earth do you do with it”. Purchasing parsnips elicited the same response. According to the 2007 USDA-NASS Agricultural Census data, the majority of commercial rhubarb production is in the cool climates of Oregon (616 acres), Washington (437 acres) and Michigan (106 acres). The rhubarb plant has a chilling requirement, during the winter, of 500 hours between 28 to 49 degrees Fahrenheit to adequately form new leaf buds. It also needs summer temperatures below 75 degrees for vigorous vegetative growth. Rhubarb plants stop putting up new leaf buds when temperatures reach 90 degrees. So you can imagine that rhubarb production would be severely limited in a southeast Virginia climate that rarely freezes in the winter, and is too hot for vegetative growth six months out of the year. The rhubarb plant has few insect pests. One insect, the rhubarb curculio, will feed on leaves and lay eggs in holes that it makes in the stalk. Crown rot is the most common disease that affects rhubarb. But overall this hardy plant is easy to grow, with little care. This characteristic, along with its unique flavor, may explain why rhubarb seems to be grown by almost everyone in Michigan. When we first moved to Michigan and started a vegetable garden, our friends, Bill and Carole Beck, gave us several clumps of rhubarb. We planted them and they grew vigorously in their new home. This is the third year and we picked our first rhubarb of the season two weeks ago. The Alexander family rhubarb cake recipe is an excellent use of rhubarb, and rhubarb crisp is another favorite. To make our rhubarb crisp, cut rhubarb into half inch pieces until you have four cups of rhubarb. Put rhubarb in an 8 x 8 baking dish. Bring to a boil: one cup of water, a half-cup of sugar and two tablespoons of cornstarch. Pour this mixture over the four cups of rhubarb. Then, mix together a half-cup of brown sugar, a half-cup of oatmeal, a half-cup of flour, a half-cup of chopped pecans and a half stick of melted butter. Crumble this mixture on top of the rhubarb and bake for one hour at 350 degrees. Served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this is a wonderful springtime treat. Rhubarb has been around for a long time. Its cultivation is documented in 2700 BC in China and its value evident throughout history. Rhubarb was a popular vegetable plant in Europe in the 1700’s. Rhubarb was first documented in the United States, in Maine, in 1790 when a gardener obtained seed from Europe. The stalk, or leaf petiole, of the rhubarb plant is enjoyed by many for its tart flavor. Other parts of the plant are not so enjoyable. Rhubarb leaves are toxic to humans due to their high oxalic acid content. Rhubarb roots are known for their purgative properties. Unless you need a laxative, just go with the stalks and enjoy this spring treat. You can contact Wes and Cyndi Alexander by email at wesalexander22@gmail.com or calexander@vt.edu.