It’s rhubarb season in Western Oregon, and the rhubarb patches at Gathering Together Farm are robust this year. The crew started harvesting stalks (technically petioles) almost a month ago, and the warm wet weather has been perfect for rhubarb regrowth. We will likely have rhubarb at our farmers’ markets and at the farm stand for another month or so until the weather starts to get truly hot and dry.
While rhubarb isn’t technically a fruit, it does make a nice fruit-like addition to an Oregon spring diet because it comes on earlier than true fruits like strawberries.
It seems that in the past few years, rhubarb has surged in popularity, but there is still quite a bit of misinformation circulating in the public lore about this ancient but still relatively unknown plant. Quite possibly the most common misconception about rhubarb has to do with the color. Rhubarb doesn’t “turn” red. It starts red and stays red unless it’s green (or greenish red) rhubarb in which case it starts green and stays green (or greenish red). Rhubarb is more like zucchini in that it can never be unripe; it just gets bigger until it gets overripe and starts to turn brown and woody.
At Gathering Together Farm, we grow mostly red rhubarb because that’s what people want even though there is essentially no difference between red and green varieties (except that sometimes the green stuff is sold at a lower price). Our original rhubarb patch was planted almost two decades ago, and rhubarb has become a mainstay for our farmers’ market booths in the spring.
Rhubarb is relatively easy to grow. It produces best when fertilized annually with composted manure and/or leaf mulch. We don’t usually water our patches because they produce most heavily during the rainy spring. The plants will continue to bear throughout the summer if they get enough water, but they will go dormant in really hot weather.
Rhubarb is generally grown from starts not seed, and we’ve heard from farming friends that good rhubarb starts are hard to find. Ideally, rhubarb should be dug up and divided every 3-5 years, so it doesn’t get overcrowded. Each time we’ve done this, we’ve planted the extra divisions in a new area, thus increasing our rhubarb acreage and yield. When we divide our own rhubarb starts this fall, we may have extras to sell, so if you’re interested in growing your own rhubarb, check back with us later.
The crew picks the most developed stalks of rhubarb from a patch every two weeks or so at this time of year, rotating the harvest area from week to week, which allows patches to regenerate between pickings. Crew members (Carmelo above) harvest rhubarb by simply giving individual stalks a good yank, which will cleanly free them from the root masses.
A crew member (Cirilo above) uses a large, sharp knife to cleave off the large leaf and the papery flap by the base of the stalk.
Rhubarb leaves are beautiful but mildly poisonous. The discarded leaves are left to mulch the rhubarb patch.
Harvesting and cleaning rhubarb is not difficult or unpleasant. In fact, the crew can fill many tubs in a half hour or so.
Tubs of rhubarb stalks are transported back to the packing shed to be rinsed, repacked, and distributed to our farmers’ markets, the farm stand, and restaurant orders.
Though it can be used in savory dishes, rhubarb stalks are generally cooked into desserts or breakfast foods with generous sweeteners to counteract its inherently astringent flavor. For more info on how to cook and store rhubarb, along with its health benefits, check out this article on Foodal.com.
Here are a few rhubarb-centric recipes from around the web that look particularly delicious:
If you don’t feel like cooking/baking on your own, GTF pastry chef Ana Patty has various rhubarb pastries and desserts (like the unbaked brown butter-rhubarb tarts above) on the menu in the farm stand on a regular basis.