Rhubarb

This is not a native plant, but since it’s so popular here and does well in our climate, I thought it deserved its own post.

While this plant is actually from Asia, it is a hardy perennial that thrives in USDA Zone 4. People from outside this region in the U.S. are often unfamiliar with it, and are skeptical about it. But many people in the Dakotas love its sweet-tart taste, and gardeners across the reservation maintain rhubarb patches in their gardens.

My neighbor and friend from the Standing Rock Seed Exchange has a great rhubarb patch in her yard. The stalks, which are the edible part of the plant, grow in abundance as the summer season wears on. But this was a special gift: an early-summer cutting from my friend’s garden, at a time when the stalks are not yet abundant. I love the vibrant colors of the fresh stalks.

One woman brought rhubarb seeds to the Mobridge Seed Exchange. I didn’t have any success starting them, but I’ll try again next year.

The main method of propagation for rhubarb is by roots. The roots of this plant will form a crown under the ground — and when it is big enough, part of the crown can be dug up and separated from the rest of the plant, which can then grow a new plant, forming a new rhubarb crown. (Sorry, no pics; I didn’t want to damage my own fledgling rhubarb patch, but I’m sure you can see what it looks like with a quick google search.) It takes a couple years for a rhubarb patch to get established, so this plant requires time and patience: you can’t harvest any stalks right away, or you will be harm your plant before it is strong enough to withstand harvesting. Some people only prefer the red-stemmed varieties of rhubarb, which are gorgeous, but I find that the green varieties taste just as good.

Rhubarb is far too tart to eat by itself — it requires some kind of sweetener. I like preparing it with honey, but brown or white sugar also works. Always taste it as you’re blending; I find that it requires far more sugar than I expect it to. It also pairs nicely with apricots, canned or fresh, which are another perennial Eurasian import that does well in Zone 4.

The leaves are toxic if eaten, but I have heard that they make a great mordant for use when dying fiber with plant dyes.

I used this rhubarb-gift, along with some apricots that were given to me by another local gardener friend, to bake a cobbler for the second Standing Rock Seed Exchange of the season. I didn’t get to try it, as I was too busy during the event to eat and there were no leftovers, but I guess that speaks for itself.

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