Rhubarb is extremely popular in Northeastern gardens. In those cool climates, rhubarb is a perennial that forms large clumps over time. Growing up in Maryland, we ate rhubarb-strawberry cobbler, rhubarb pie, and rhubarb crumbles all the time. Although rhubarb is cooked and eaten as a fruit, it's actually a vegetable in the sorrel family. That explains its strong, bitter taste.
Here in Houston, many gardeners are not familiar with this uniquely tart, bright red vegetable. Because it cannot survive our long hot summers, rhubarb must be planted in the fall and grown as an annual. This mean that we will never be able to establish thick mature rhubarb patches, but it's still worth growing in the Houston vegetable garden. And just in case you're new to rhubarb, remember that you can only eat the stalks, which look like red celery stalks. Rhubarb leaves are highly toxic.
Northern gardeners typically start their rhubarb from purchased plants. These plants are more reliable than starting rhubarb from seed, but they are very expensive. The investment may be worth it if your plants are going to be around for several years, but here in Houston they're going to die when it gets too hot next summer, so we recommend starting with seeds, the cheaper alternative.
We selected two varieties of rhubarb from Territorial Seed, Victoria and Glaskins Perpetual. Victoria is an early-maturing variety that dates back to the 1830's in England while Glaskins Perpetual is the American standard. It will be interesting to compare the flavor of these two rhubarbs, something that you can't do with store-bought rhubarb since there's never more than one variety on offer.
We started the seeds in early August, and almost gave up on them. They finally germinated after 10 days, and we now have seedlings that already have the characteristic red stems. We started a second batch last week, and seedlings are just starting to emerge. We'll transplant the seedlings in about a month. If all goes well, we'll be eating rhubarb cobbler and rhubarb pie next spring. We can't wait to pull out my rhubarb recipes and start baking.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009