Friday, May 31, 2024

Rhubarb season offers a wealth of opportunities

By Kendra Raymond

Late spring in Maine can only mean one thing: rhubarb season has arrived. For some, this is a much-anticipated rite of passage into summer, while for others it may not even be on their radar. Whether you are a fan or not, why not embrace the season and take advantage of this quirky early season crop?

Two varieties of rhubarb are shown growing
outside a home in the Town of Raymond.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant which returns yearly and is classified as a vegetable in the buckwheat family. Rhubarb needs to live in areas where winter temperatures dip below 40 degrees which encompasses USDA hardiness zones 3-8; Our area is classified as 5a to 5b.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin #2514 entitled “Growing Rhubarb in Maine” provides some great background education, growing tips, and uses. The publication says that early records of rhubarb in America identify an unnamed Maine gardener as having obtained seed or rootstock from Europe in the period between 1790 to 1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts where its popularity spread and by 1822 it was sold in produce markets.

In Judith M. Fertig’s book, “The Memory of Lemon,” the main character who is a baker says, “I loved rhubarb, that hardy, underappreciated garden survivor that leafed out just as the worst of winter melted away.”

Think of rhubarb as one of the first crops of spring, coming in a close second to fiddleheads. Full of many vitamins and fiber, rhubarb is a nutritious and low-maintenance addition to the home landscape, providing interesting texture, serving as a border, or a quick area filler.

As a horticulturist, I am always looking for opportunities to obtain plants for cheap or free, and especially heritage varieties belonging to family or those that hold sentimental value. When my in-law’s house in Fort Kent was listed for sale, you better believe I was out in the garden, axe in hand to chip away a piece of my husband’s childhood rhubarb patch. Yearly, I make my mother-in-law’s rhubarb jelly with her rhubarb.

The New England Vegetable guide says that: In New England, the most common rhubarb variety grown is Macdonald, also known as Macdonald's Canadian Red or Macdonald Crimson. This cultivar has large stalks and a vigorous and upright growing habit and is resistant to wilt and root rot. It is probably the most common variety available. It is excellent for pies, canning, and freezing.


It’s not difficult to get part of a rhubarb plant, either at a garden center, or by dividing a small section from a friend or neighbor’s plant. Dividing rhubarb is best done in early spring when the crowns emerge from the soil. This will give the new plant a long growing season to become established in its new site. Next, dig a trench around the desired section of the plant to expose the crown. Plan to obtain at least two buds and a decent section of root, but don’t worry if you lose some deep roots – they will do just fine. An axe or sharp tipped shovel works well for this task. Keep your root ball moist and transplant as soon as possible. Choose a sunny location with lots of space for expansion. Make sure the crown is a couple inches above the soil level to ensure proper growing.

Flowers and Harvesting

As the plants mature for the season, a large flower may emerge from the stalks. Removal of the flowers can stimulate healthy growth, but leaving the flowers is also an option if you like them. When the stalks appear mature, simply cut them at the base to harvest. Do not cut immature stalks, and never remove more than half of the plant. Remove the leaves (they are toxic), wash the stalks and cut as desired for various uses. Rhubarb leaves make a great addition to the home compost pile. Fresh rhubarb stalks can be stored in the refrigerator for several days.

I’ve got ‘em, now what?

This is the fun part: time to get creative with preparation methods for your fresh rhubarb. In my recipe book, I have a section entitled “rhubarb,” which comes in handy for this application. My gold standard is old fashioned rhubarb coffee cake, a recipe handed to me by my mother. I also like making crisps, jelly, pie, and relish. The internet is filled with creative and healthy ways to use rhubarb.

Read more about Rhubarb in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension bulletin here:

Here is a great bulletin about the health benefits of rhubarb including storage options and recipes:

Taste of Home provides 10 great rhubarb recipes here: <

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