Rhubarb from Seed

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.

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. I think people like buying them as divisions because it’s faster. You can start harvesting a little rhubarb the following spring starting them from a division. My local greenhouses usually have them for between $6 and $9. We planted 2 of them 2 years ago (lost one to some sort of bug I think), last year we replaced the dead plant and bought 3 more besides. So this year I should start seeing a decent crop of it finally, but then it’s a popular ingredient in desserts and jam at my house and we are now feeding a family of five, with the birth of our daughter last August.

    1. Sharon says:

      Yeah, I think people do like divisions because they’re faster. And if you factor in the value of that extra harvest, then they’re probably even worth it, money-wise. Although I’m told that you can harvest rhubarb at two years from seed, so the difference may not be all that great. We’ll see! (Congratulations on your new baby daughter!)

  2. kate says:

    I love rhubarb! Strawberry rhubarb is without a doubt my favorite kind of pie.

  3. Sheryl says:

    Rhubarb is a big thing with our family here in Alberta, Canada – it’s so versatile in cooking and baking! It’s a mainstay in many gardens here because it’s so cold hardy and easy-care. A marvellous plant, all-around! (Most people usually start them from divisions – often sourced from the plants of neighbours, friends, and family!).

  4. Thanks for bringing back the near-forgotten and most wonderful rhubarb! love your post!

  5. Wow! I’ve never heard of starting rhubarb from seed…

    Around New Hampshire, there are so many old-growth rhubarb patches, I can hardly give the stuff away. I gave a neighbor some root divisions 2 years ago, which further stimulated my old patch to be MORE productive!

    I make several kinds of jam, strawberry rhubarb pie, stewed rhubarb, and rhubarb juice! Mmmm…

    But I don’t much eat it straight from the garden… you must love tart things, eh?

    Good luck with your plants! I’m going to post my favorite rhubarb jam recipe soon…

    1. Sharon says:

      Seems like rhubarb may be one of those things that’s more popular in colder areas in the US. I’m sure there are people around here growing some, but I’ve never heard people talk about it. Hopefully that’s not because it doesn’t do well here. 🙂 I’ll be looking forward to your rhubarb jam recipe! (Even if I have to wait a year or two to use it.)

      1. Sadly, I think it’s true that rhubarb prefers a colder climate. It does well, even in Alaska, but I never saw it growing up in California.

        Hopefully you’ll have some luck with yours!

  6. Tim Steffen says:

    I found rhubarb in my herb garden last year. Strangely, I’m not sure how it got there(!), but we picked some of our strawberries, too, and made a great pie.

  7. elliesmummy says:

    Reblogged this on Too many balls….and so little time and commented:
    Talking about Rhubarb!

  8. How is your rhubarb doing now? I’m growing the same variety from seed this year and debating when to plant them out in the yard. They are still pretty small and just have a couple of true leaves right now. I’ve transplanted them already from 6 packs to singles. I think we started them around the same time so maybe I’ll wait till the end of the month like you did to put them outside.

    1. The rhubarb transplanted well. All four of my plants survived and within the year were quite large. Though I wouldn’t harvest anything the first year. What I did find disappointing about the plants was that they didn’t have the ruby red stems you expect from rhubarb. The problem, I think, is that they don’t come true from seed. I think buying rhubarb divisions is probably the better way to go, because then you know you’re getting a beautiful, delicious variety. But, experimentalist that I am, I couldn’t help wanting to see how they would do from seed! And I’m glad I tried it.

    2. Actually, Paula, I just ran across this article from Mother Earth News on Victoria rhubarb: http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/victoria-rhubarb-zmaz10djzraw.aspx. Apparently it’s SUPPOSED to have greener stems. In fact, before this variety came along in the 1800s, rhubarb often had entirely green stems. People were attracted to Victoria because of that little dash of ruby-redness. And apparently the lack of redness doesn’t detract from the taste. I haven’t gotten to sample mine recently since I no longer live at my parents’ house, where I planted it! But you’ve got me thinking of doing some transplanting!

      1. Interesting. Thanks for the info. I’ve transplanted mine into single pots. I have 12 but probably won’t plant them all. I’ll be giving some away or selling the starts. Going to wait a little longer before I put them out into the garden.

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