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Helpful Herbs: Rhubarb

You know it's really Spring in the Northeast when the Rhubarb is ready to harvest. There's hardly an old farmhouse around here without a Rhubarb patch out back, burgeoning into delicious stalks every May or June. It's an easy, low maintenance plant to grow and cook with, with a rich history dating back almost three thousand years.

Rhubarb is a perennial that grows well in most zones. Preferring full sun, Rhubarb can also grow in partial shade and is planted as a "crown", a small ball of roots with a stalk of growth at the top. Crowns should be planted in early spring and heavily mulched with organic matter and straw. Throughout your Rhubarb's life, keep it will mulched with fertile soil and thick bedding in winter.

Rhubarbs dislike being transplanted, so make sure where you start your patch is where you want to keep your plant. They will grow into large bushes sometimes as much as five feet tall and five feet across.

While your plant will grow best with good fertilization and regular watering, Rhubarb is very resilient. The patch at our home had been completely abandoned and uncared for many years and was still flourishing.

In the Spring your Rhubarb will put forth long stalks with large green leaves on the ends, and it is these stalks that are the most prized part of the Rhubarb plant. Harvest the stalks when they are between one and two feet long. They should be fairly thick around, and harvested for 8-10 weeks in the early Summer. When stalks start thinning, the plant is ready to die back for the winter.

Trim off the leaves (which are toxic) and use only the red stalk from the Rhubarb for cooking. The most common Rhubarb recipes include classic pastries, jams, and pies. The sweetness is mixed with a tangy, mouth-puckering tart that gives Rhubarb its uniqueness. While it is mainly a dessert food, it can be made into a sauce that goes well drizzled over pork, or enjoyed as a zesty chutney.

You can also use Rhubarb to make some tasty drinks, including sodas and cocktails. Its sharpness pairs well with vanilla ice cream, and you can pickle it to enjoy at any time of year. A personal favorite from my childhood was always Rabarbragot, a traditional Norwegian pudding of Rhubarb, sugar, and corn starch.

Rhubarb is also a traditional medicine that gives your health all kinds of benefits. It contains nutrients that are good for your intestines and has laxative effects. It is currently being tested as a possible remedy for leukemia, and it is rich in Vitamin C and Calcium for every day health. Because of its low caloric count, eating Rhubarb can also help you lose weight.

Rhubarb as a medicine was one of the first remedies to be imported to the West from China. The Ancient Chinese had used Rhubarb roots as a laxative for millions of years, and it was a common cure to find on the Silk Road. Marco Polo was familiar with the plant, and it became popular as a food stuff around the 19th Century. Imported to the Northeastern United States in the 1820s, Rhubarb has become a staple of New England Summers.

Plant a Rhubarb patch and you know that people will enjoy its savory stalks for generations. You won't find yourself having to argue about taking this medicine, its sweet flavors compliment many desserts. And always harvest the reddest stalks - the brighter the color, the sweeter the flavor.


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