Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 18
May 3-9, 2001
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Rhubarb Envy

It's hard to grow in Maryland?
I didn't know that until I read the article.

-Timothy Yarbrough of Arnold on his rhubarb plants.

Hey, this guy is the kind you admire and envy. If you've failed Rhubarb 101 in your garden, maybe you even hate him a wee bit. After all, he makes growing this vegetable hereabouts seem as simple as growing dandelions.

How can it be? That's what I thought when I read about Tim in the daily press. He's turning out the tangy stalks, and sometimes cooking them, and wife Mary Ann treats fellow teachers at South River High School to her rhubarb pie. In Maryland!

That's the part that gets me - in Maryland. It's not supposed to get cold enough in winter around here for what's also called "spring fruit" to flourish. Rhubarb is more of a northern plant. It was common in New England when I was a kid and still is. The same can be said for Minnesota, where Tim got his original plants from his family more than 10 years ago.

He didn't know it wasn't supposed to prosper here. Obviously the plants didn't either, so they just grew and grew and provided the makings of sauces and pies and other things rhubarb is noted for. When he moved five years ago, he up and packed the plants with him.

Just like that, they again took to new soil. A season wasn't missed in rhubarb production. And here I am probably 15 miles away not infrequently touting my green thumb and Yankee farm background. Yet I've a record for failing miserably in three attempts to foster a hill of the stuff at the Burton homestead on the banks of Stoney Creek in North County.

Any inclination toward a tad of hate evaporated when I chatted over the phone with Timothy. Why, he even apologized for giving away his quota of plants this year - and I hadn't even asked for any. But there was a flush of envy within me as he talked of growing rhubarb year after year, no problems whatsoever - and what's all the fuss about?

This really got to me. He griped that he can't get the stuff to stop growing. It spreads out, and root cuttings have to be made to keep a hill in check. From the way he talks - and in a matter-of-fact way; he wasn't rubbing it in - wherever he starts a new plant, whether in his garden or that of friends and neighbors, it thrives.

Rhubarb Longing

Here I am, country-born and fully appreciative of the taste of rhubarb, and mired in failure, with nothing but memories of the hill of rhubarb in back of the house in New England. That hill soon became two, then a third. No reason for more because everyone else had rhubarb plants in the Great Depression.

Like a cat, rhubarb is self-maintaining once it takes hold and starts growing. That doesn't take much more than liberal applications of manure or compost and a penetrating down-under frost in winter.

But as I understand it, Tim applies the fertilizer only once a year. And hey, no way can winters be colder and frost more earth-penetrating in Arnold than in Riviera Beach to the north.

It's about impossible to get fresh rhubarb in the market. It's gotta be freshly cut like beet greens, as any farm boy can appreciate. That's why in rural New England, the "pie plant," as rhubarb is also often referred to, isn't always planted in the main vegetable garden.

Not infrequently it's found not far from the kitchen door, which reduces the time between twisting off the plant to the pot. But it really doesn't have to be cooked. No sir, not good rhubarb, which many who use it for pies and sauces these days obviously don't realize.

Rhubarb Flavors

A freshly plucked thin rhubarb stalk can be an instant snack. Just rinse it off and add salt or sugar. In the Depression, a few raw stalks was dessert for families. But don't eat the leaves; they can make you sick.

My sister Ruth Wilbur, who lives in Rhode Island, tells me she still nibbles on a fresh stalk with sugar or salt - and from a single hill that has prospered for 40 years. She doesn't even bother to fertilize it.

Ruth suggests peeling the outer skin off a stalk as one might with celery. Then add the "seasoning" and pop it into the mouth.

But this has to be done in springtime before the stalks get big and fat and more bitter. Yet, again, there's Tim, who - though he always cooks his rhubarb - tells me he eats it all spring and summer. On the farm, we never did much with rhubarb once we got into June.

Maybe we were rhubarbed out by then, or perhaps once the strawberries were history for the year, we lost interest because - talk about apple pie and vanilla ice cream, lamb and mint jelly or pork and applesauce - no two things go together more than rhubarb and strawberries, whether in pies, sauces or jams.

They complement each other. Both have appreciably strong, fruity flavors, and sugar blends them well. Makes a nice robust and appetizing color combination, too. I once tried mixing raspberries with rhubarb, but unsuccessfully; the latter overwhelmed the berries. Maybe cranberries would turn the trick, but that would require an awful lot of sugar, or in my case Sugar Twin, a sweet, though sugarless, substitute.

Aunt MiMi in Vermont has tended the same rhubarb plant for decades. Every three years she removes a good portion of it, but she doesn't start another. One plant meets her needs. She's great on plain rhubarb sauces but advises against peeling, which removes much of the red. The resulting green isn't very attractive though taste is not diminished.

Grandma Burton always had rhubarb, but not near the kitchen. She was a practical woman who knew the plants like manure in their diet, so her hills were in the cow pasture. Her rhubarb sauces, pies and jams were magnificent.

I Fail Where Others Prosper

So what have I been doing wrong in attempts to put home-grown rhubarb on the family table? Three times, I've established a hill amidst the daffodil garden (rhubarb is an attractive plant) where it got much sun, which the perennial plant needs as much as manure or compost. All three times, I've watered well at critical new-growth time and mixed manure with the soil.

I also weeded around the plant well, which is critical the first year only. However, I've yet to harvest a single stalk. No need to be concerned about avoiding stalks more than a couple inches across. Mine never gained even a temporary foothold.

Ben Franklin had no trouble growing the stuff, which has been around for more than 5,000 years. Nor did John Bartram, who received some seeds from Old Ben after he saw plants in Scotland in 1772.

Bartram wrote Franklin that he had planted some seeds in a bright sunny place, others in the shade, and surprisingly it was the latter that produced. But it wasn't until the early 1800s that rhubarb became more than an imported curiosity. Not until after the Civil War did it gain its due popularity.

Seeing how most of that war was fought south of the Mason-Dixon Line, rhubarb never had a chance against peanuts on the menu of the blues and the grays. And it doesn't have much of a chance in my backyard, though I'm tempted to try one more time. It's worth the odds.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly