For most of recorded history, rhubarb was only used medicinally. Native to China, it is thought that Marco Polo brought rhubarb back from his travels there.
Rheum rhabarbarum wasn’t used as a food source until the late 1700’s. Its first recorded mention is as a pie plant.
Rhubarb was planted extensively by pioneers in the United States and descendants of many of those original plantings survive in our northern cities today.
Hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8, rhubarb grows 2 to 3 feet tall, depending on the variety. It needs temperatures below 40 degrees to break its winter dormancy and begin new growth in spring.
Plant rhubarb in full sun in rich garden soil. Space the plants 3 to 4 feet apart in rows 3 feeet apart. The plants will grow smaller and be less productive if planted closer together. Place the crown about 2 inches below the surface of the soil. Water well.
Provide newly transplanted rhubarb with water for its first year in your garden, thereafter it will withstand drought fairly well.
Don’t harvest rhubarb the first year you plant it. Like asparagus, it needs to put all its energy the first year into building a strong root system.
Harvest sparingly the second year. Only harvest stalks that are at least an inch thick. During its third year, harvest for about a month in spring. Thereafter, harvest stalks as they mature for the entire rhubarb season, which runs for about six weeks from the time the first stalks are ready to harvest in early spring.
Cut the stalks at the soil line or grasp a stalk near the surface of the soil and twist it away from the crown.
Rhubarb is known as the pie plant; it is primarily used as a fruit in pies, crisps, compotes, and jams. Made into a smooth sauce, it is also a good companion for seafood.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of picking a stalk of rhubarb fresh from the garden, dipping it into sugar, and eating it raw. Of course, that was before scientists discovered that sugar was bad for you.
I practice selective amnesia when it comes to such discoveries.