Growing and cooking rhubarb

One of the highlights of my vegetable garden is rhubarb, and usually I harvest the first batch of stalks around this time of year. I have five plants: three are large enough to harvest, and the other two are small divisions made this spring. I started with two plants three years ago. It seems that you can just keep dividing the plants forever.

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a member of the Polygonaceae, like some of our most aggressive alien weeds (Japanese knotweed). Also in this family are a number of useful edible plants, such as buckwheat and sorrel (also in my vegetable garden). Rhubarb is, of course, a vegetable, although we usually sweeten it and treat it like a fruit. Only the stalks are edible, and they are very, very bitter.

When cooked, rhubarb has a distinctive and very interesting taste, and it’s high in several essential vitamins and minerals. It combines especially well with strawberries, which, conveniently, ripen when rhubarb is ready to harvest. My favorite way to use it is to stew it in a simple syrup and use it as a thick compote or sauce on yogurt, ice cream, or fresh fruit.This is how I made it earlier today:


Rhubarb Compote

about 2 pounds of rhubarb stalks, trimmed and cut in 1/2-inch slices

2/3 cup each water and sugar

freshly grated ginger or orange peel (optional)

1 pound fresh strawberries, cut in bite-size pieces (optional but highly recommended)

Combine water and sugar in a saucepan with a lid and make a simple syrup. while the syrup is coming to a boil, cut the rhubarb stems in 1/2-inch slices. Add them to the syrup and cook them uncovered until you like the consistency: the longer the cooking time, the smoother and thicker the sauce.

Turn off the heat and add some grated ginger or orange peel, or, best of all, cut up 1 pound of fresh strawberries and add them. Cover the pot a leave it off the heat. The strawberries won’t quite cook through, but they will kind of meld with the sauce: strawberry rhubarb pie without the pie!


Growing rhubarb, a perennial plant, is an example of permaculture, a philosophy geared toward obtaining food in a more sustainable way. Think about it: most of our food plants are annuals. Every year, you must prepare the soil, plant, till, weed, fertilize, harvest, remove the old growth, . . . Annuals need a lot of water and fertilizer, so growing them is not sustainable.In contrast, a perennial plant or fruit-bearing woody plant (hickory, elderberry, chokeberry) requires much less work and almost no inputs after you first plant it. It makes sense to rely as much as possible on hardy, long-lived plants.

What to do with all your delicious rhubarb? The Smitten Kitchen website has lots of great recipes.

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