An early spring treat


Rheum rhabarbarum

You'll be happy to discover rhubarb is a hardy and problem-free perennial. You plant a few roots (or crowns) and then every spring thereafter you can treat your family to one of spring's most refreshing tastes. And in the kitchen, you'll like rhubarb's tangy taste and versatility—it plays nicely with other flavors in stuffing, sauces for meat and fish, tarts, pies and preserves. Here's all you need to know.

Definition: Rhubarb
1. A perennial vegetable, Rheum rhaphonticum, a member of the buckwheat family and relative of garden sorrel. Also known as "pieplant."
2. A heated argument. See also: quarrel, dispute, disagreement, controversy, dust-up, run-in, set-to, fracas, hassle, donnybrook, brouhaha

  • Site: Rhubarb thrives in cool locations and full sun. In warmer climates, plants benefit from light shade but form longer, thinner stems.
  • Soil: Rhubarb needs deep, moist but well-drained soil. Before planting, prepare a hole at least 1.5 feet deep and 3 feet wide. Loosen the soil and enrich it with a 6-inch layer of compost. Add a handful of bonemeal if your soil is low in phosphorus.
  • Planting: Set the crowns of rhubarb divisions 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. Set container-grown plants level with the soil surface or slightly lower if the surrounding soil is likely to settle. Keep the plants moist, and mulch in spring and fall with several inches of straw or grass clippings. Keep mulch away from the crown to avoid rot problems. Remove any seedstalks that form—they sap the plants' energy
  • Spacing: Space plants 3 to 4 feet apart in rows 6 feet apart.
  • Fertilizing: Fertilize every year in early spring by spreading a few inches of compost over the area.
  • Special hint: If you are buying from a nursery, look beyond the old-fashioned stand-by, 'Victoria', which has tart-green flesh that cooks up to a brown color. New varieties—like 'Chipman's Canada Red', 'MacDonald', and 'Valentine'—have sweet, succulent red stalks that look as good as they taste. 'Giant Cherry' grows well where winters are short or mild.

A rhubarb division offered by a neighboring gardener is likely well-suited to your climate, but ask about the plant's tendency to bolt, or go to seed when the weather turns warm. Rhubarb varieties, including 'Victoria', that bolt regularly, produce fewer large-size stalks; their energy goes into flower and seed production.