A couple years ago, I spent the summer on a farm in Brittany, France, doing some gardening, raising some chickens, and picking baskets and baskets’ worth of fresh fruit from the trees and bushes tucked around the property. There was a wild-looking, unstaked raspberry patch about 4′ by 6′ that yielded bowl upon bowl of the sweetest, most tender raspberries anyone has ever tasted. There were the two aging cherry trees, which I had to climb a ladder to divest of their harvest. And the plums, which just fell to the ground for me to pick up. All of these were wondrous, but the most intriguing were a couple of 3-foot-high plants sitting at the edge of the vegetable plot. Their huge, deep green leaves and brilliant red stems gave them a tropical allure, even in Brittany, which has the chilly, humid weather of its namesake, Britain. Though the climate was decidedly untropical, this plant looked incredibly healthy, as though it had never gotten the memo that gardening was supposed to be hard work.
One day while we were walking in the garden, my host pointed to this obviously thriving plant. “La rhubarbe,” he said. “Tu connais?” He reached down and twisted off a couple of magnificent stems, an inch and a half wide, with a deeply concave interior. Handing one to me, he chomped down on the other. I somewhat more hesitantly followed suit.
The sweet, citrusy taste was a complete surprise. Until then, I’d thought that only the fruiting part of a plant could taste that way. A stem with such a delicious, refreshing taste seemed against nature. How did this plant avoid being gobbled up by animals as soon as it emerged in spring? It certainly wasn’t going to escape me…
Back in the States, I’ve come across a few people who grew up eating rhubarb and love it. (Strawberry and rhubarb pie is a favorite.) But I’ve come across many more people who’ve never tasted it. Who don’t even know what it looks like. (And this is a plant you never forget.) This is a travesty. My fellow Americans are being culinarily deprived, and don’t even know it.
To rectify the situation, obviously I had to plant some rhubarb. Well, rhubarb root divisions cost $13 apiece at Gurney’s and $13.50 at Territorial Seed Company. That seems a little steep for such a carefree plant. So I decided, as with asparagus, to go the seed route.
I bought Victoria rhubarb seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for $2.95, and on January 30, I started my first two pots indoors. Germination was 50%. Not bad. They grow a little more slowly than annual vegetables, but by last week, when I started hardening them off for planting outdoors, they each had three or four true leaves. And what leaves! So healthy and stocky-looking. And the stalks are such a beautiful pink.
Yesterday, I planted them out. 4 feet apart. These guys get big. I prepared the soil as always–with compost and all-purpose fertilizer–then I put a little extra fertilizer in the bottom of the planting hole and watered them in with a generous dose of Miracle-Gro. One of them looked a little droopy in the mid-70’s sunshine, but by late afternoon, it had perked back up. I mulched them liberally with straw, partly to keep their roots cool and the soil from crusting over, partly because they just look so cute that way!
I’ve read that some people think rhubarb isn’t good to grow from seed, that it doesn’t “come true.” Well, there may be a little variation in these plants, but I’ve taste-tested them. When I thinned out the extras, I nibbled their stems. (Don’t eat the leaves; they’re poisonous!) And they were…delectable. They will do just fine. 🙂 Now I just have to wait a couple of years for the first real harvest.