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Stalks of rhubarb with large green leaves coming out of the dirt.
Although it’s not actually a fruit (it’s a leafy vegetable), rhubarb sits in the dessert camp when it comes to its culinary uses. Its stems, which range from crimson red to light green, are used in pies, cakes, crumbles, jam, ice-cream and more. It’s easy to grow and, once established, will keep providing for years.

What you need to know about rhubarb

Name: rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum, Rheum x hybridum, Rheum x cultorum.

Height: 0.6-1m.

Plant type: perennial leafy vegetable.

Climate: all climates.

Soil: well-drained, enriched with organic matter.

Position: full sun or part shade.

Flowers: on mature plants, clusters of small white blooms can appear on the ends of hollow flower stems. These should be removed to encourage the plant to direct energy into growing leaves (and their edible stalks) instead of flowers and seeds.

Foliage: large, crinkled leaves with wavy margins. Note: the leaves are toxic as they contain high levels of oxalic acid.

Feeding: fertilise every four weeks with a high-nitrogen formula throughout the growing season.

Watering: water regularly to keep the soil moist.

Appearance and characteristics of rhubarb

Rhubarb is a perennial plant. That means, unlike most other vegetables, you don’t need to replant it each year. It forms a tall clumping plant with long stalks and large broad leaves. Only the stalks are edible – the leaves are poisonous – and they vary in colour from deep red to pale green according to the variety, but all are just as flavoursome.

Sticks of rhubarb with large green leaves at the tops.

Uses for rhubarb

Rhubarb stalks need to be cooked before eating. When stewed with sugar and a little water for a few minutes, the result is a delicious tangy ‘puree’, which can be further blended in a food processor if you want a finer texture (great for ice-cream and mousse). Rhubarb is used in a wide range of desserts, preserves and baked goods, and it also partners well with other fruit, including apples, plums, and strawberries.

How to grow rhubarb

The quickest and easiest way to grow rhubarb is to plant crowns, which look like a clump of roots. These are sold in nurseries during winter, when the plants are dormant, and should be planted in winter or early spring. They need a sunny or semi-shaded spot with well-drained soil enriched with manure and compost. Rhubarb can also be grown from seeds or seedlings, but it will take a couple of years before they are mature enough to be harvested.

Caring for rhubarb

Rhubarb needs little in the way of special care. Because the plants can live for many years, it’s a good idea to give them their own space so they can be left undisturbed to develop into large clumps. In winter, clumps become dormant and, depending on the variety, may die back or produce fewer or no stalks.

If any flower stems appear, cut them off at the base to encourage the plant to put its energy into leafy growth.

A small bowl of cut rhubarb stalks on a wooden table, with long trimmed stalks lying next to it.

How often should you water and feed rhubarb?

Rhubarb plants require regular food and water to encourage plenty of fresh new leaf stalks. Water plants regularly during spring and summer, at least three or four times a week, depending on the weather. Feed with a high nitrogen fertiliser (either granular or liquid) about every four weeks. In winter, apply a dressing of manure or blood and bone around each plant to enrich the soil and ensure a good surge of spring growth.

How and when to harvest rhubarb

Rhubarb is harvested from spring through to autumn, though it’s best to hold off for the first year to allow plants to develop into a healthy clump. Pick stalks by pulling them sideways and down, this way they can be pulled cleanly from the crown. Always harvest the outer stalks, leaving the newer ones in the centre to continue growing, and never pick more than half the stalks at a time. After picking the stalks, remove and discard or compost the leaves, which are poisonous.

Diseases and pests that affect rhubarb

Rhubarb is generally free of pests and diseases, though snails can sometimes attack the leaves. Use an organic snail bait if necessary. The main threat to rhubarb plants is waterlogging during wet spells, so make sure your plants are in well-drained soil, otherwise grow them in a raised garden bed.

How to propagate rhubarb

To propagate rhubarb, divide established clumps every four years and replant the new sections. Late winter or early spring is the best time to do this.

If you like this, then try

Stevia: an annual herb with sweet, dark green leaves – often used as a sugar substitute.

Lemongrass: a tough clumping grass with lemon-scented leaves. Widely used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Beetroot: this fast-growing root vegetable is packed with flavour and easy to grow in pots or garden beds.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

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