Rhubarb is simply amazing. Sweet, tart, lemony, zesty – while it’s not always the prettiest perennial in the garden it’s truly something that’s worth having handy to brighten up your dishes or make a dessert really shine, especially in late summer.
It’s a vegetable but is often used as a fruit in cooking due to its naturally high sugar content. Not only is it great for you, it also happens to be one of the two main ingredients in my all time favorite pie. More on that later.
One of the great advantages of rhubarb is how easy it is to grow for new gardeners too! As a perennial, you only need to get it going, and this plant will be a gift that keeps on giving.
Native to the steppes of Siberia, rhubarb was brought to Europe via trade routes developed by the mongol empire, eventually making its way to Europe and later, America!
History of Rhubarb
Humans have been evolving alongside rhubarb for a long time, or – if you believe the Zorastrian creation myth- since the very beginning. According to ancient middle Persian texts, the first man and woman appeared as conjoined twins attached to a rhubarb plant!
Rhubarb has also been an important ingredient in Chinese medicine, and appears in the Shennong Bencaojing (also known in English as ‘The Divine Farmer’s Herb Root Classic’) a critical collection of oral medical traditions thought to have been originally published almost 2000 years ago, which classifies rhubarb as a dangerous ‘lower herb.’
During the Islamic Golden Age between 700 AD and 1300 AD, rhubarb began to be traded more seriously as a commodity, and was coveted for its value. It cost several times as much as other valuable spices sold on the silk road such as cinnamon, saffron and even opium.
In a report to the Spanish monarchy on his travels to Samarkand, a Castilian monk puts rhubarb in the company of many of the most valuable materials on earth, writing that “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…”
These high prices led to an increase in cultivation in Europe and ultimately led to various cross breeds and hybrids that would weather the more temperate northern European climes, and eventually rhubarb made its way to England.
Here the nascent rhubarb industry exploded after a technique for ‘forcing rhubarb’ was developed in the area between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. This area eventually came to produce about 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb, and is still known today as the Rhubarb Triangle.
What is Forced Rhubarb?
Forced rhubarb is rhubarb grown with the technique invented in West Yorkshire which allows it to be cultivated out of season and produces a much more delicate and sweeter tasting root. To force rhubarb, growers plant the seeds in the ground and then leave the rhubarb plants alone for 2 years outside to allow them to get used to the frost and increase the roots’ hardiness.
After the plants are exposed to frost in the 2nd year, they are moved into what are called forcing sheds. These sheds were traditionally coal heated, long buildings with low ceilings which are completely winterless. The transplanted rhubarb is kept in the dark from this point forwards until it is harvested.
Because the plant is not exposed to any UV light it ceases photosynthesizing and the toxic leaves get much more stunted and shrink, losing their green color and becoming more yellow hued.
The other, main advantage, is that the energy that is stored as carbohydrate in the root converts to glucose (aka sugar) and the root gets a deliciously sweet tangy flavor. The roots of forced rhubarb are also much more tender and delicately textured, and are still picked by candlelight today by the 12 remaining growers in the rhubarb triangle.
What About Medical Benefits?
As mentioned earlier, rhubarb has been associated with medicinal properties for thousands of years. The plant used to be sold as a product called physic in apothecaries in the Victorian era, and the roots when powdered and dried, were sold as a laxative.
That said, the stalks’ effects in this regard when cooked, and even eaten raw are not particularly noticeable. The red part of the rhubarb stalk is chock full of an antioxidant flavonoid called anthocyanin.
This compound has shown anti cancerous properties in tests carried out in humans, and additionally, has shown an ability to lower blood pressure. Rhubarb is also full of vitamin K, which is likewise great for blood health, as well as regulating bone density.
For all these advantages, rhubarb has a bit of a dark side as well.
Is Rhubarb Poisonous?
Short answer, yes. Rhubarb is actually toxic to humans, but only the long flat leaves. The stalks are completely safe to eat raw. The ingredient in rhubarb that makes it dangerous for consumption is called oxalic acid (also known as oxalate), a compound found in lots of seeds, vegetables and fruits but in very low amounts.
Rhubarb leaves have extremely high concentrations of acid, which is considered a ‘nephrotoxin’, meaning that it specifically affects kidney function. In fact oxalate has been linked to increased kidney stone formation, a discovery that was particularly acute in World War 1 when the British food ministry accidentally recommended people eat Rhubarb leaves as part of rationing measures.
You’d have to be trying pretty hard to let rhubarb toxicity get the better of you though, since it would take about 8 kg of raw rhubarb leaves to administer a lethal dose of oxalate.
Types of Rhubarb
1. Cherry Red
Also known as cherry crimson rhubarb, this variety is very hardy in cold temperatures and will grow up to a full size of about 4 feet by the time it’s ready to harvest. If you want to make completely sure that you’re planting the real deal, you’ll need to buy transplants and put them in your garden once as soon as your garden soil thaws out in the spring.
You can quality transplants from nurseries or even on the internet with a little poking around. Just make sure that it has plenty of room (a meter from other plants is ideal), and gets 6 to 8months of sun exposure every day and it’ll take care of itself. Soil that drains well is also critical.
Don’t harvest it after the first year! With rhubarb it’s really worth leaving the plant alone during its initial growing period so that it cultivates a strong root base and stays healthy and productive for years to come.
2. Chipman’s Canada Red
Still very cold hardy, though perhaps a little bit less than the cherry red, Chipman’s Canada Red is a rhubarb varietal that shines in terms of its sweetness and heavy production. When I say sweet I mean it too.
Cooking with this variety will require some recipe adjustments as most rhubarb need a lot more sugar to make them palatable. Chipman’s Canada Red will be harvestable for about 5 years after you plant it.
Speaking of planting, you’ll want transplants or crowns (bare root bulbs), to get these started. Be sure to give them a little room to grow and you’ll have a half decades worth of rhubarb coming your way.
3. German Wine
This sweet variety is a little bit different looking from most other rhubarb, with darker red stalks. As rhubarb goes this variety is pretty hard to beat when it comes to eating raw, and can also be used to make (you guessed it) rhubarb wine.
Unlike most of the other varieties we’ve covered so far which are unicolor deep red, German wine actually has a green stalk that speckles red. It likes to be planted in good to full soil, and will grow to about 3 feet. Like other rhubarbs it needs to be kept clear of weeds and given plenty of sunlight but is a real low maintenance garden gift once you get it settled in.
4. Glaskin’s Perpetual
A British heritage rhubarb variety that was first grown in the seaside town of Brighton in the 1920s, the Glaskin perpetual is a beloved cultivar with gardeners because of its reliability and heavy yields. It was not used much for forcing, and is generally grown in open gardens.
The stalks are sweet, and quite a bit softer texturally than most rhubarb. Like the german wine variety, Glaskin’s perpetual rhubarb is a green stalk that speckles orange and red.
Most rhubarb will build in oxalic content over the course of the summer but Glaskin’s perpetual does not, which means you can harvest this variety right through to late summer and autumn without fear. This is therefore a good option for those who are a little more sensitive to the stuff, or who already have a higher chance of getting kidney stones.
MacDonald’s Canadian Red
5. Hawke’s Champagne
Particularly easy to grow and beloved by West Yorkshire growers for how well it takes to forcing. Champagne rhubarb has long and thin pink stalks and sweet, ebullient flavor on the palate. It’s an early variety, and is really easy to grow without much fuss.
Plant it in April or May and don’t harvest it the first year to make sure it grows a nice healthy root system. Then you can harvest from April to June the following years without any hassle or worrying about hurting the plant. That being said, with all rhubarb – never harvest more than a third of the total plant or you risk killing it.
6. Hardy Tarty
While most of the varieties on this list can boast strong cold tolerance, the hardy tarty is unique in its exceptional capacity to take the heat! This variety is a good option for growers further south, or with particularly hot gardens, and produces long thick stalks, dark red stalks.
Hardy tarty rhubarb are also comparatively compact, growing out to about 30% smaller than varieties like Canada and Cherry Reds, so if you have a small garden or need space for other things but want to squeeze some rhubarb in, this is a solid option.
The stalks are tangy, tart and definitely not nearly as sweet as some of the other rhubarb on this list but don’t let that dissuade you!
7. Holstein’s Bloodred
A cross between the ‘Red Delicacy’ and ‘American Giant’ rhubarb varieties made by Ernst Ledwig Meyn from Uetersen, Germany – this breed was first conceived in 1880 but not released to the rest of the world until almost 40 years later at the end of the First World War.
It boasts blood red, deeply grooved stems which are noticeably thinner than a lot of other varieties. This variety is comparatively slow to grow, and takes a little bit more care due to its tendency to bud.
These flowers need to be removed otherwise the energy spent on good flavor is lost and you’ll have a pretty tart yield. Holstein’s bloodred are very well suited to being forced early and were used extensively in the Rhubarb Triangle during the golden era of British rhubarb production.
8. Prince Albert
Boasting fantastic flavor and gorgeous light red, sometimes pinkish stalks, the Prince Albert rhubarb is also known as Royal Albert or Early Albert and is ready for harvest in the early season, meaning April, May and June.
This variety was first cultivated in 1840 by Joseph Myatt, a well renowned rhubarb and strawberry cultivator who conceived of the Victoria rhubarb on this list as well. It was conceived as a forcing rhubarb, and as such takes a little bit more work on the gardener’s part than some of the other cultivars on this list.
If you’re living in hotter climes, then the KangarRhu might just be the rhubarb for you. This variety has great heat tolerance as a result of being crossbred with an Australian cultivar. The stalks are a phenomenally deep red color, making this perennial almost worth it just to behold!
They take a little while to get going, and definitely need to be left alone for at least one year, but they have a tendency to shoot up tremendously after their first season and provide incredible yields and an unmatched flavor when cooked into pies.
10. Riverside Giant
Riverside Giant rhubarb is a bit different. These plants have absolutely massive leaves, and unlike most of the other cultivars included here, produce green stalks through and through. These plants are living on a different scale of time compared to most other varieties, and will produce great yields for upwards of 20 years!
That being said, they take a while to get off the ground, and you probably won’t be harvesting much from them until year 3 or 4, so you may want to be patient and plant another variety in your garden in the meantime while it gets started.
The end product is great for canning, making jam and slapping in a pie! If that weren’t enough good stuff, this is also probably the hardiest of all rhubarbs. Riverside giants have been known to comfortably weather winter temperatures of -40. That’s the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius for the record!
The beautiful Sunrise rhubarb will brighten up any garden with their variable gradient, green, white and pink colored stalks. It makes a nice difference from the usual reds you get from your grocery store varieties and screams heirloom if you ever want to sell some at the farmer’s market.
Sunrise rhubarb has particularly thick stalks, making it great for freezing and canning. It grows well and easily as long as it has plenty of fertile soil around it.
12. Timperley Early
One of the earliest maturing varieties of Rhubarb, the Timperley Early has a green and pinkish red speckled stalk. It’s used quite regularly for forced rhubarb, and can be harvested as early as February, a full two months before other ‘early’ varieties.
Even if you aren’t forcing it, free grown Timperley stalks will be ready to harvest in March and will continue to produce well through to at least late May.
Another creation of the British cultivator Joseph Myatt, the Victoria rhubarb is a robust, long living variety that shares much with the monarch for whom it was named. Victoria rhubarb is another green-stalked variety, and like the Riverside Giant, it will continue to live for over 20 years once you plant it.
It’s extremely reliable and tastes great, balancing its tart acidity with a generous dash of sugar. Great for cooking with, the tender stems are an absolute treat because they aren’t stringy at all, and are a favorite for making rhubarb jam as well.
While technically a green stalked variety it may blush pink at the base. With Green stalked varieties, you’ll know the stalks are ready once they’re nice and big after their third year. Barely any seasonal aspect to worry about at all!
Rhubarb Apple Pie
There is no dessert that quite does it for me like rhubarb apple pie. Sweet yet tangy, crisp yet buttery. This dessert is a true cornucopia of sensory experience. The finest expression through baking of the changing seasons as summer winds into autumn.
So if you feel like expressing some poetry in motion as the dog days of summer shorten and the morning air gets as crisp as a granny smith, grab yourself an apron and learn to bake the finest pie the world has ever known.
First you need to stew yourself some rhubarb. To do this, get about 10 ounces of rhubarb and cut them into quarter inch slices. Once chopped, throw it all in a saucepan with ⅔ of a cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water. Set to low medium heat and let it simmer as you gently stir.
It should take 8 to 10 minutes until the sugar dissolves and rhubarb starts to soften just a little. Then use a slotted spoon to remove the rhubarb and set it aside while you turn up the heat on the remaining liquid.
Let it simmer and reduce for another 10 minutes, then add it to the rhubarb you set aside and mix it up. This makes for the ultimate rhubarb base since you don’t get that stringy, uncooked texture in your pie.
Now onto crusts. There are lots of options, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you’re a pie pro, you have perfected your craft and know what to do, and if you’re a total novice then I would just recommend going to the store and buying some frozen pie dough.
This makes things easier and that way no matter who’s reading you can get a crust just the way you like it.
Finally, the most important part, the final filling. For this you want to wrangle together the following:
- 3 large apples. We want the crispest you can find! Core, peel and slice them up.
- The stewed rhubarb we set aside earlier
- ¼ cup of brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon of flour
- ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon of clove
- ¼ teaspoon of grated ginger
- ½ teaspoon of grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice
Prep your pie crust as needed and get it all laid out. This recipe is designed for a 9 inch pie plate so plan accordingly if you’ve got something else. Once it’s thawed and prepped, add all of the stewed rhubarb, the apples, the sugar, flour, spices and the lemon juice into a big bowl and stir it up nicely. Once well mixed, pour it into your pie plate laden with crust.
Hopefully you’ve got enough leftover pie dough for a lattice! I leave that to you, the internet is your friend if you’ve never attempted one, but once you get the hang of it ain’t so hard. Be sure to brush it with an egg to get that golden brown finish though!
Bake it for 35 to 40 minutes, or until you can see through the oven window that the crust has become an eye wateringly beautiful golden brown.
Serve it up with a little vanilla ice cream, and savor that first bite, which always provides a moment of genuine, timeless bliss.