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Rhubarb: a spring favorite

By Jennifer Fishburn

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[April 10, 2012]  Some of my favorite spring vegetables are lettuce, spinach, asparagus and rhubarb.

One of my favorite spring desserts is a slice of warm rhubarb pie with ice cream.

Rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, is a cool-season perennial vegetable that was introduced to the United States at the end of the 18th century. Rhubarb was first cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago. It was initially cultivated for its medicinal qualities. Rhubarb forms thick red, pink or green petioles (stalks) with large, extravagant green leaves.

Rhubarb grows best where plants will receive full sun in fertile, well-drained soils that have good organic matter. Plant rhubarb in the early spring while plants are dormant. Avoid harvesting the plants the first year, and only lightly harvest for one to two weeks during the second year. Full harvest may begin the third or fourth year, depending on the plant size. Harvest for eight to 10 weeks.

Rhubarb has a sour, tart, tangy flavor; you could say it is mouth-puckering. To minimize the tartness, most people find it necessary to sweeten rhubarb with sugar, honey or fruit juice. Rhubarb is often combined with strawberries. Rhubarb is rarely eaten raw. Rhubarb can be purchased from a U-pick grower or a supermarket. In central Illinois, harvesting usually begins in late May and can continue until late July.

The flavor depends on the cultivar. Red-stalked reliable cultivars include Canada Red, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, MaDonald, Ruby and Valentine. Victoria is a reliable green-stalked cultivar. Generally, the deeper red the stalk, the more flavorful. Medium-size stalks are generally tenderer than large ones.

Harvest 10- to 15-inch stalks by snapping them rather than cutting them off. Grab a stalk down where it emerges from the ground, and pull up and slightly to one side. Harvest only one-third of the stalks from a plant at one time. Immediately after harvesting, cut off and discard the leaves. If purchasing rhubarb, look for flat, crisp stalks, not curled or limp.

Rhubarb leaves should never be eaten. They contain oxalic acid, a toxin that can cause poisoning when large quantities of raw or cooked leaves are ingested.

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If not immediately using the rhubarb, it can be stored in the refrigerator, between 32 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit, with 95 percent relative humidity, for two to four weeks. For best results, store unwashed stalks in perforated plastic bags in the crisper drawer.

Rhubarb is 95 percent water, and 1 cup of diced rhubarb contains about 26 calories, 2 grams dietary fiber and 351 milligrams of potassium. Due to its acidic nature (pH of 3.1), avoid cooking rhubarb in reactive metal pots such as aluminum, iron and copper.

Rhubarb can be prepared and served many different ways -- pies, tarts, breads, cobblers, cakes, jams, sauces, puddings and salads. My favorite rhubarb recipe is a longtime family favorite.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted

1 cup brown sugar

4 cups of chopped rhubarb

1 yellow cake mix prepared according to directions on the box

Into a 13-by-9-inch baking pan, pour melted margarine and sprinkle with brown sugar. Spread chopped rhubarb over the sugar mixture. Prepare a yellow cake mix according to the directions on the box. Pour batter over rhubarb. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until cake is done.

For more information on growing and using rhubarb, visit the University of Illinois Extension Watch Your Garden Grow website at

[By JENNIFER FISHBURN, horticulture educator, University of Illinois Extension, Logan-Menard-Sangamon Unit]

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