Rhubarb is a North Dakota thing. I've traveled across the country in my early years as an artist and met so many people that had no idea what rhubarb pie tasted like. I heard it was sometimes called "truckers pie," but how could you not know about this delightful vegetable?
That is correct; rhubarb is not a fruit but rather a vegetable. If you visit any old farmsteads in this state, you will most likely see that if nothing else survived abandonment, the rhubarb did.
As children, we played under the canopy of enormous rhubarb stalks. My mother was a master at making rhubarb everything in the spring to use its prolific green stalks. Since that time, I have learned that the red stalks, as in Canada Red Rhubarb, are sweeter. But I think it's the color that makes me gravitate towards that variety. When you make strawberry rhubarb jam, the color of the red rhubarb enhances the overall color of the jam. As you know, rhubarb sauce made from the green variety turns a dull color when cooked. But who's looking if it tastes good?
Varieties of rhubarb were discovered in ancient China. It was used for medicinal purposes during the plague and given as gifts to the king. Many historical events surrounding ancient Chinese rhubarb can be found at: http://www.rhubarbinfo.com/rhubarb-history.html.
So how did it get to North Dakota?
According to the website for the "Rhubarb Capitol of the World" in Sumner, Wash., rhubarb was smuggled to Seattle in 1893 by Adam Knoblauch from Eastern Europe. There's a complete recounting of the growth of rhubarb production in Washington at the website: http://www.ci.sumner.wa.us/Rhubarb/History.htm.
Another theory is the German people tasted rhubarb while in China, and as they say, the rest is history. If the Germans loved rhubarb, they undoubtedly brought it with them to North Dakota when they settled in the state.
Rhubarb, and Germans, are cold hardy making it a perfect plant for our 3a and 3b northern part of the state and the more fortunate gardeners in 4a and 4b.
Rhubarb is usually the first edible perennial to appear in the spring and produces until temperatures reach 90 degrees in the summer before going dormant.
The large-leafed plants will thrive in well-drained soil of almost any type but prefer organic matter in slightly acid soil. Fertilize new growth in the spring with either a commercial mix or well-aged manure.
The best way to grow your own is to find someone to share their old rhubarb cuttings. If you cannot obtain cuttings from your friends or relatives, you can purchase plant roots. It takes too long to grow healthy rhubarb from seed, so it is not recommended for the home gardener.
Space the root cuttings two feet apart if you need more rhubarb than one plant can provide. Once established, it is a prolific producer and will continue to grow new stalks until it becomes too hot. Continually pulling the seed head that grows from the middle will keep your plant producing until it gets too hot.
Usually, one or two roots will provide enough rhubarb to eat fresh and freeze for winter. Do not pick the first year's crop; the roots need those leaves to become established. As your plant becomes larger and the roots more crowded, you can easily separate and share the cuttings or start new areas.
In addition to being easy to grow, studies show that rhubarb has anti-cancer properties and, when eaten fresh, is a good source of fiber. The acid in a cold piece of fresh rhubarb can counterbalance stomach acid. Some also believe that rhubarb extract can alleviate hot flashes.
This excellent plant also has anti-bacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties, which would explain why the Chinese valued this fruit for treating almost anything that ails
However, there is a toxic chemical in the leaves, so you do not want your animals or children to ingest them. They do, however, work very well for concrete birdbaths and other fun art projects.
Around here, we love rhubarb pie made in a fashion similar to apple with fresh fruit, sugar and cinnamon.
If you prefer a custard-type rhubarb pie, here is an alternate recipe from my mother. She used to make pies, juice, jellies and more from her rhubarb patch that may very well still be growing in the lot of our former family home in Fredonia.
Rhubarb Pie Filling
My mom, Lorraine Meidinger Kaseman's recipe
2 cups cubed rhubarb
1 ½ cups fine bread crumbs
4 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups sugar
Brown bread crumbs in butter, add beaten eggs and sugar, mix with rhubarb and pour into 9-inch pie crust. Bake at 425-degrees until firm.
Sue B. Balcom
Writing, or maybe talking, comes naturally to me and under the guidance of a great newspaper editor I have acquired skills that led me to author four books.