When we moved to this house several years ago, there was a rhubarb plant languishing in a shady corner of the yard that I kept meaning to move. It would send up few stalks and then pout the rest of the season as the tree & fence nearby blocked the sun. Last spring I moved it to a sunny spot on the other side of the yard and this year it thanked me with an explosion of growth. Even with the unseasonably cold spring, there was plenty of new stems enough to make a rhubarb crisp and the Vanilla Rhubarb Jam featured below.
Easy to grow
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a perennial and botanically a vegetable. One of my favourites, it’s virtually carefree; years ago it was common to have it growing in the backyard, one of the first fresh harvests of the year. I recall as a child an easy handsnack: a teacup with a little sugar for dipping the cut sour tasting stem. Only the stem is eaten, pulled away from the root rather than cut; the leaves are poisonous but can be added to the compost pile. Requiring little attention during the growing season beyond planting in rich, well drained soil at the outset, rhubarb will thrive best in a sunny location with the only care being removal of the seed stalks (pull them away from the root with a twist) to encourage root development. Dividing the root every five years will ensure thick, healthy stems. Stems can be harvested until the first of July when the plant should be left alone to prepare itself for the winter.
Dividing & maintenance
It’s best to divide or move rhubarb when it’s dormant in the spring, not least because it’s easier to do without the stalks being in the way and allows time to get established compared to a fall transplant. An established rhubarb plant can have a substantial root system and if moving, it would also be a good idea to divide the root. To divide, cut root (rhizome) with spade or garden knife so there’s at least 3 or four buds on each root section; throw away any diseased or rotted parts. Dig a hole slightly wider than rhubarb root and deep enough to be able to add several shovelfuls of composted manure, and so that the crown will be at or just below the surface. Set the new plants 24″ (60cm) apart in the new location to accommodate the size of the stem, leaves and root growth and adding mulch to within 12″ (30cm) of crown.
Fun with rhubarb
- The massive size of the rhubarb leaf makes them ideal for a garden project on my list this summer: leaf imprinted concrete stepping stones. Stay tuned for a future post on this project.
- Insecticide for use against aphids, slugs, caterpillars on ornamental plants (do not use on your edible plants or those your pet chews): the same oxalic acid in rhubarb leaves that makes them toxic to us also makes them toxic to pests. Bring four cups of water to a boil and add 3-4 rhubarb leaves chopped; simmer for 30 minutes then remove from heat to cool. Strain into a bowl, pressing the leaves to get all the toxic brew. In a spray bottle add 1 cup of water and 1 tsp of liquid dish detergent; add the cooled rhubarb leaf liquid and gently give it a shake to blend. Like any insecticidal soap, it’s most effective sprayed on both sides of leaves.
- The tasty, tart stems can be used to make anything from pie, crisps, compotes, shrubs, jams, and added to savouries such as bbq sauce, soup, and lamb.
Making rhubarb jam
Not having a recipe for rhubarb jam, I asked The Google and it came back with several suggestions including this winner at Food in Jars. An amazing compendium of recipes and a fabulous preserving resource, check out Marisa’s Canning 101 link and her books. I halved the recipe and used powdered pectin which is all I had in the cupboard. Actually it’s astounding I had that since I try to make do with the natural pectin in fruits usually successfully. Marisa suggested 2 tbsp powdered = 1 pouch liquid pectin and worked great.
- 5 cups chopped rhubarb (1/2 inch pieces)
- 2 cups granulated white sugar
- 1/2 cup Earl Grey Tea
- 1 vanilla bean, split and scrapped
- 1 lemon, juiced
- pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp powdered pectin (Certo)
- Wash and sterilize jars in a large pot of boiling water
- To a non-reactive pot or glass mixing bowl add rhubarb pieces and sugar, cover and leave a few hours or overnight
- Put rhubarb and sugar mixture (including liquid) in large non-reactive pot and add tea. Bring to a boil over medium high heat
- Reduce heat to simmer and add vanilla bean pod and scraped seeds, lemon juice and salt
- Measure pectin into prep dish and slowly whisk into rhubarb mixture, blending well
- Continue to cook for 10-15 minutes, watching to see when it begins to coat the back of the spoon
- Test for readiness by chilling a small saucer in freezer for 10 minutes and adding a small spoon of jam--wait a minute and if it sets your jam is ready
- Remove vanilla bean pod
- Pour into prepared sterilized jars and add lids & rings
- Process for ten minutes in a hot water bath, remove and let cool
- This recipe made 2 x 250ml + 4 x 125ml jars total
- The original recipe called for a packet of liquid pectin (Ball brand) and generally it's recommended not to substitute. However, worked for me so give it a try.
- If one has an allergy to sulfite, use powdered pectin; liquid pectin contains sulfite
- Jam will continue to set as it cools; overcooking jam will result in a solid glob or crystallize (ask me how I know)