Rhubarb is a perennial spring vegetable that grows abundantly from May to July in the Adirondacks. Rhubarb is in the plant family Polygonacea along with knotweed and buckwheat. While the plant is technically a vegetable, the tart edible stalks of the plant are most commonly thought of as a fruit, and is eaten in sweet preparations.
History and Facts
Rhubarb has been an important plant for thousands of years. In China, it is referred to as “the great yellow”, and appears in ancient Chinese medicine books dating back over 1,800 years. Rhubarb was traded along the Silk Road trade route and was brought to Europe for the first time during the 14th century. The transportation cost of the plant made it very expensive in Medieval Europe and it was more valuable than saffron and opium. This inspired the development of cultivars that could be grown in Europe. During the 18th century it became more widely available in Europe and with the decreasing price of sugar, it started to become a popular food rather than just a medicinal plant. It’s estimated that rhubarb was first grown and eaten in the United States in Philadelphia in the 1730s.
Rhubarb in the Adirondacks
There are a handful of things that grow better in the Adirondacks than in California, and rhubarb is one of them! Rhubarb thrives in the colder climates of the Northeastern United States where the ground freezes in the winter. To grow at home, simply plant it and try not to run it over with the lawn mower. You will have an abundance for the rest of your life.
To grow it commercially, farmers have to do a little more management to help it emerge early and to minimize pest and disease damage. Rhubarb is not a major crop for vegetable or fruit growers in New York State. It’s estimated that there are only 24 acres of it in commercial production across the state.
The Gift That Keeps Giving
In the Adirondack region, rhubarb may be easier to find in your neighbor’s backyard than at the grocery store. Because the plants come back every year and thrive on neglect, rhubarb is the gift that keeps giving. You may find that a family member, friend or neighbor, would happily share some with you. If you really like it, ask for a division of their plant in the spring or fall to plant in your yard. Then you can enjoy your own plant next year, and pass along a division of your plant to someone else years after that. Division every few years helps the plant continue to thrive, so it’s really the plant that keeps giving! There are also more modern varieties available for purchase from plant nurseries that grow bigger, sweeter, juicer stalks that you may prefer. If you choose to pick your own rhubarb, just make sure to only eat the stalks. The leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and can be harmful if eaten, especially in large quantities.
Because rhubarb is tart on its own, it is most commonly used to make sauces, jams, and compotes with sugar, or used in addition to other fruits in pies and desserts. If you like tart and sour things, try eating rhubarb on its own – some people call it nature’s sour patch kid! A few other recipes to try:
Where to Buy
Many farmstands, farmers’ markets and local food retailers have it available now. Find one near you at: adirondackharvest.com/browse
How do you enjoy it? Comment and let us know below!