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A Man and His Rhubarb

Terry Eastland, sweet and sour stalker.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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My wife says the only thing I’ll plant is what I can eat. Not entirely true, I tell her. I point to certain things I’ve planted: the cluster of yellow iris in the side yard, the bunch of white iris in the backyard, and the large spread of irises of many colors in the front yard, under the crape myrtle.

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You could say I like irises, which are beautiful flowers that no one eats, and my irises have stories. The yellow came from a bed beside my parents’ house in Hillsboro, Texas, the white from the grounds of the house in Milledgeville, Ga., where Flannery O’Connor lived (her mother grew them), and the ones under the crape myrtle from local nurseries. Among the last are some reblooming irises, including one that opened for the third time in 2012 exactly a week before Christmas. Ever heard of such a thing? 

But I digress. I do like to grow fruits and vegetables, and for that purpose many years ago we put into the side yard a raised garden bed. It’s about 16 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 2 feet tall. The height of the bed has  protected the soil and kept varmints out, and made it easy for the gardener (me) to work the soil. 

Down through the years I’ve tended to go with the basics: tomatoes (though some years they just aren’t good), green beans (they never fail), green peppers (ditto), and yellow squash (usually okay). I’ve stuck with blueberries (a perennial), which you have to scare the birds away from. And then there is a recent addition—rhubarb.

Several years ago Jill brought home from the farmer’s market two small rhubarb plants. I’d eaten rhubarb in pies a time or two but didn’t know much about it. I discovered (online, at the excellent “Rhubarb Compendium”) that it originated 2,700 years ago in Asia, where it still grows wild, and was brought to Europe during the Middle Ages. It was first used for medicinal purposes, but eventually someone figured out that it could be made into pies and other desserts.

Rhubarb, I further learned, is technically a vegetable. It’s a perennial that forms large rhizomes (underground stems) and grows big, heart-shaped leaves on long stalks. The leaves are toxic, while the stalks, rich in Vitamin C and dietary fiber, are the edible part. You harvest rhubarb by cutting the stalks at the soil line or pulling them out with a hard twist of the wrist. 

I learned, too, that rhubarb does well in colder climates. Which made me wonder: How might it do around here—comparatively mild northern Virginia? 

I knew it would take a while to find out the answer, since I’d also read that rhubarb needs a good two years for the roots to establish themselves and for the stalks to hold onto their leaves. For that reason, you’re advised not to harvest stalks in a plant’s first year and to take only a small harvest in its second, selecting stalks an inch or more thick and leaving the rest. By the fourth year you can harvest whenever you have mature stalks. 

The first year, the stalks and leaves of our rhubarb fairly jumped out. It was hard to resist the urge to harvest at least a few stalks, but I waited, and I took only a small harvest in the second year. 

Not yet into their fourth year, our plants are, well, huge and growing. Here in late spring they stand almost four feet tall. Some leaves are 20 inches long. The stalks are about the same length, green on one plant, and pink and red on the other. Harvesting the stalks—I’ve already cut a few this year—constrains the plants’ growth not at all. Of course, the summer heat may slow it. But if the pattern from last year holds, our plants will renew their strength in the cooler days of fall.

Already I can see that early next year I’ll be digging up root masses and dividing the crowns. So we’ll have more rhubarb plants—insurance, I guess, against the decline of our first two, which are supposed to remain productive for 8 to 15 years. 

If we had planted our rhubarb in the yard amid my wife’s many shrubs and flowers, you might mistake them for decorative plants. They look that good. That’s why the best descriptions of rhubarb take into account its appearance as well as its taste, which I have refrained from addressing until now. If you get the chance, order (or make, you bakers who are reading) a sweet-tart rhubarb pie. 

If you agree it’s hard to beat, thank the unknown Maine gardener who in the infancy of the Republic obtained rhubarb seed or rootstock from European sources and sold it to growers in Massachusetts. By 1822 it was on sale in produce markets, where doubtless it was oft chosen by partisans of good taste. 

 

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