Safety Concerns about Rhubarb

Many areas in Iowa experienced record or near record temperatures in early April 1997. Those cold temperatures have prompted questions on the edibility and use of rhubarb. Answers to those and several other rhubarb related health questions are presented below.

Is it safe to use rhubarb after the plants have been exposed to freezing temperatures?

The leaves of rhubarb do contain oxalic acid and soluble oxalates. Consumption of rhubarb leaves can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, and even death. The concern expressed by some individuals is that the oxalic acid and soluble oxalates would move from the leaves to the stalks upon exposure to freezing temperatures. In fact, however, the movement of these compounds into the stalks is not a problem. Gardeners should examine their rhubarb and base their harvest decision on plant appearance. Cold damaged rhubarb leaves will shrivel and turn black. Damaged stalks become soft and mushy. Damaged rhubarb stalks should be pulled and discarded. Any new growth which emerges later this spring would be safe to eat. Rhubarb plants showing no sign of damage are fine and can be harvested.

Do the rhubarb stalks become poisonous by summer?

It is generally recommended that home gardeners stop harvesting rhubarb in early to mid-June. Continued harvest through the summer months would weaken the plants and reduce the yield and quality of next year’s crop. The rhubarb stalks may become somewhat woody by mid-summer, but they don’t become poisonous.

Is it safe to harvest rhubarb if the plant is flowering?

While the flower or seed stalks should not be used, the leaf stalks are edible. However, the flower stalks should be promptly pulled and discarded. If allowed to develop, the flower stalks reduce plant vigor and next year’s production. Flower stalk formation may be caused by drought, infertile soils, and extreme heat. Age may be another factor. Old plants tend to flower more than young ones. Flower formation can be discouraged with good cultural practices. Water rhubarb plants once a week during dry weather. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of an all purpose garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, around each plant in early spring. Manure is an alternative to a commercial fertilizer. Apply a 2 to 3 inch layer of well-rotted manure around rhubarb plants in spring. Dig and divide large, old rhubarb plants in early spring or late summer.

Are rhubarb leaves safe to put into the compost pile?

While the rhubarb leaves do contain poisonous materials, they can be used in the compost pile. Oxalic acid and soluble oxalates are not readily absorbed by the roots of plants. Compost containing decomposed rhubarb leaves can be safely worked into the soil of vegetable gardens.

This article originally appeared in the May 2, 1997 issue, p. 57.

Just Ask Us: Can rhubarb become dangerous if exposed to cold weather?

Q: Can rhubarb become dangerous if exposed to cold weather?

A: Rhubarb plants as a whole aren’t permanently damaged by cold freezes in the spring, but the edible stalks can be altered by freezing weather in a way that is poisonous to humans, UW-Extension horticulturist Lisa Johnson said.

Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans, but that acid is generally not found in the stalks, which is why those are safe to eat. Cold temperatures can change that distribution of oxalic acid, Johnson said.

“Once temperatures fall to a range of the lower to middle 20s, oxalic acid in the leaves will (move) to the rhubarb stalks that we harvest,” Johnson said. “When consumed, oxalic acid can crystallize in the kidneys and cause permanent damage to the organs.”

The rhubarb will show signs of damage when exposed to freezing temperatures, which can warn gardeners harvesting it, Johnson said. The leaves will wilt and blacken along the edges where damaged, and the stalks will be limp with “poor texture and flavor,” Johnson said.

Damaged leaves and stalks should be removed from the plant and discarded.

“It’s safe to harvest rhubarb if the plants show no signs of damage two or three days after the freeze event,” Johnson said.

Any stalks that emerge after the freeze are safe to harvest, Johnson said.

Should you eat any damaged stalks or some of the leaves, you don’t need to rush to an emergency room. National Geographic reports that a person would need to eat several pounds of rhubarb leaves to reach toxic doses.

— Shelley K. Mesch

13 things to know about growing & eating rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is easy.

Everyone knows if you eat rhubarb you need to add a little sugar, but there is another way to sweeten the deal.

Words: Jenny Somervell

“Make something with rhubarb,” I said to my creative cook, husband Ken.
His first attempt was a sumptuous rhubarb and strawberry cake that was so good we demolished it in a day. We were well into the second when he mentioned in passing he’d forgotten to put the baking soda in which would account for it being a little dense.
Many people avoid using rhubarb because they think it needs too much sugar to sweeten up the dense, sour taste. This delayed its uptake into the kitchen until 100 years ago when sugar became more affordable. Ken circumvented the sugar problem by adding the sugar reducing herb, sweet cicily (Myrrhis odorata).

For years rhubarb was under-valued in our family garden, languishing untended by the compost heap. Now and then we cooked it up, usually when the ‘better’ fruit ran out.

But rhubarb’s days as a poor man’s fruit are over. Mouth-watering recipes can be found online and they feature rhubarb in just about everything: desserts, drinks, wines, soups, salads, and main menu dishes of pork, chicken, lamb and fish. Rhubarb makes delicious jams and jellies, and bulks up fruit without diluting flavour. The rich sweet-sour combination makes it a standout in crumbles, cobblers, tarts and cakes, especially when complemented with apple and berries.

In the garden, with a little TLC, rhubarb forms a handsome perennial ground cover with large, luxuriant leaves and you get the bonus of tasty leaf stems for culinary and other uses. Nutritionally, the stalks are rich in vitamin C, dietary fibre and calcium and – minus the sugar – low in energy with one cup of rhubarb containing just 26 calories. It’s also proven as a safe tonic for the digestive system.


Rory Rhubarb was a comic character in one of our son’s favourite picture books when he was a toddler and just like rhubarb, Rory was full of contradictions.
For example, rhubarb can have quite different effects depending on how much you eat. Eat it in large quantities and Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) effects a ‘brisk healthy purge’ according to Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. However in small quantities it has the opposite action as an astringent tonic, useful in treating diarrhoea. The purgative effect is due to the presence of anthroquinines, while the astringent action is due to tannins and bitters.
But before you get too worried about rhubarb’s purgative properties, our garden varieties contain smaller amounts of active ingredients and are therefore only mildly laxative. It’s more likely rhubarb will stimulate the appetite and promote healthy digestion.
Another conundrum is that rhubarb is traditionally used as a medicine and a fruit, yet it is really a vegetable, a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) and a close relative of sorrel. Rhubarb has been a highly valued purgative herb in Chinese medicine for millennia, its earliest recorded use dating back to 2700 BC. When it reached Europe in the 14th century, Chinese rhubarb was traded along the Silk road along with silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds and pearls, and was several times the price of saffron.


1. Rhubarb grows in its native habitat in north-east Asia in deep, rich, moist soils at high altitude. It will withstand drought but it doesn’t do well in the heat, preferring ample water in a deeply-worked, well-drained soil with generous amounts of compost.
2. Provided temperatures stay below 24°C, rhubarb will continue to grow succulent stems in summer. Any hotter and stems grow weak and spindly. Above 32°C, rhubarb will go into dormancy until temperatures drop, when it will shoot away again.

3. In our temperate climate rhubarb is usually winter dormant, but you can force it by covering the stalks with an open-ended box or tube. The resulting early, etiolated (pale) stalks are especially tender.

4. Rhubarb can be grown easily from seed but this takes longer than root division, typically two years to harvest.

5. The faster way is to divide the established crown of a 4-5 year old plant, preferably in autumn or spring. Any piece of rhizome with roots and at least one good eye or bud will produce an identical plant to the parent. Use a spade to cut the rhizome between buds or eyes, discarding rotted or decayed sections.

6. Plant roots in an open site away from overhanging trees. If drainage is a problem, beds should be raised as rhubarb is susceptible to crown rot.

7. Clear all perennial weeds – they are difficult to eliminate later.

8. Dig a large hole (up to 1m deep) and incorporate generous amounts of organic matter, then plant with the crown bud 5cm below the soil surface.

9. Allow plenty of space – 60- 120cm between plants in rows one metre apart.

10. Rhubarb crowns should be dug and replanted every 4-5 years to maintain vigour.
11. Delay harvest until the second year after planting to allow root reserves to accumulate. Rhubarb is usually harvested in autumn and spring when stalks should be firm – too late and they become tough and stringy.
12. Do not cut stalks but snap off at ground level with a twisting motion. Young pink stalks are sweeter than thick long green ones, depending on variety. Harvest less than a third of the stalks from one plant at any one time.
13. Remove seed stalks as they appear.

Rhubarb’s names are confusing. The genus name Rheum refers to many different species, which grow wild in the mountains of west and north-west China. Rheum is thought to come from the Greek rheo, ‘to flow,’ referring to rhubarb’s famed purgative properties.

The garden varieties, grown for their edible leaf stalks, are derived from Rheum rhaponticum and Rheum rhubarbarum. Hundreds of varieties are listed for commercial production but the most common seed-raised home-grown variety is Victoria which produces large, quality green and red stalks and is highly productive.

Medicinal Chinese rhubarb is derived mainly from the rhizome of Rheum palmatum, but also R. officinale.
R. palmatum is distinguished from garden rhubarb by its size and texture. The large rhizomes produce expansive, lobed, heavily-veined leaves, rougher to touch than garden rhubarb and hollow, jointed stems to 2.5m.

In favourable conditions its growth rate can be extremely rapid, as fast as 7.5cm a day.

“Rhubarb when raw is so tough And its leaves contain poisonous stuff, But when cleaned and de-soiled Dipped in sugar and boiled Then the stalks are quite tasty enough!” Peter W, UK

The leaves of all rhubarb varieties are poisonous, containing about 0.5% oxalic acid and should not be eaten under any circumstances. Symptoms of poisoning include:
• breathing difficulty
• burning in the mouth and throat
• diarrhoea
• nausea
• vomiting
• seizures
• coma
Avoid using stems from frost-bitten plants as they can accumulate oxalic acid. Leaves are safe to add to the compost pile as the oxalic acid is mostly broken down.

This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine. Discuss This Article

When To Harvest Rhubarb And How To Harvest Rhubarb

Rhubarb is a plant grown by braver gardeners who know the wonderful flavor of this unusual and often difficult to find plant. But, a new rhubarb grower may have questions like, “How to tell when rhubarb is ripe?” and “When to harvest rhubarb?” Keep reading to learn more about harvesting rhubarb.

When to Harvest Rhubarb

How to tell when rhubarb is ripe is as easy as walking out to the plant. To be honest, rhubarb is “ripe” all spring and summer. But for the health of the plant, there are certain times that you should make your rhubarb harvest.

The best time when to harvest rhubarb is when the stalks of the leaves reach at least 10 inches long. This will ensure that the plant has established itself well enough for the year to be able to tolerate being harvested. You can take some of the rhubarb stalks earlier than this, but limit your rhubarb harvest to just a few stalks so that you do not kill the plant.

Knowing when to harvest rhubarb also means knowing when the season is over. While technically, you can keep harvesting rhubarb until fall, keep in mind that your rhubarb plant needs to store energy for the winter. Significantly slow or stop your rhubarb harvest in late June or early July so that your rhubarb plant can build up energy stores to make it through the winter. Again, it can be picked until the frost, but do so sparingly or you risk killing the plant.

Also, if your rhubarb is newly planted, you will want to wait two years before taking a full rhubarb harvest from the plant. This will ensure the plant is sufficiently established.

How to Harvest Rhubarb

Harvesting rhubarb isn’t difficult either. There are two ways how to harvest rhubarb. One is to use a sharp knife or shears to cut off stalks that are at least 10 inches or longer. The second is to gently pull the stalk while gently leaning it to one side until the stalk breaks off from the plant. Never harvest all the stalks off your rhubarb plant.

After you cut the stalks from the plant, cut the leaves from the stalk and throw them in the compost bin. The leaves of the rhubarb plant are poisonous and should never be eaten.

That is all there is to harvesting rhubarb. Now that you know when and how to harvest rhubarb, you can enjoy these tasty stalks in a wide variety of recipes.


Not sure whether your rhubarb is ready to be picked? Here are some helpful tips for how and when to harvest rhubarb!

When to Pick Rhubarb

PLEASE don’t wait for your rhubarb to turn “all red”. Colour is not an indication of ripeness when it comes to rhubarb – it is just an indication of variety. All three types of rhubarb below are ripe – based on size not color.

Just like you wouldn’t wait for a Granny Smith apple to turn red – don’t wait for your rhubarb to turn red! Instead, rely on the size of the rhubarb stalks.

Stalks should be about 7-15 inches (20-40 cm) long when they are ready to harvest.

How to Pick Rhubarb

Once it’s ready to harvest, here’s what to do:

  • Start with the bigger stalks on the outside of the plant and work your way towards the centre. Leave the smaller stalks for another day.
  • Slide your hand to the bottom of the stalk and pull. The stalk should come out nice and easy.
  • If you find you’re pulling out roots or you can’t reach all the way, you can also cut the stalks as close to the ground as possible. Pulling the stalks allows the plant to recover a little more quickly as compared to cutting stalks, but cutting is not detrimental to the plant. Rhubarb is tough, it’ll bounce back!
  • Leave at least 1/3 of the stalks on the plant in spring time to ensure it continues to grow and thrive throughout the summer.
  • Trim the leaves and put them in the compost. (Yes, the leaves are poisonous, but they won’t hurt anything in your compost bin.)
  • Harvest whenever more stalks are ripe, always leaving at least 1/3 of the plant.
  • Once the plant starts to flower, the stalks will get a little tougher. To extend the season, cut off the flower stalks.
  • In early July, give the plant a chance to gain some strength over the summer. Add a little compost around the roots and let it be.
  • Rhubarb doesn’t like the heat and won’t do much during the summer, but you may get some more stalks in the cool fall season. At this time of year, be sure to leave 2/3 of the stalks on the plant so it can store enough energy to survive the winter. Do not harvest if your plant is young, small or has not filled out after the hot summer months.

Concerned that your neighbour’s rhubarb plant is bigger than yours? To get a big luscious rhubarb plant think about moisture, drainage, compost and sun. These are the elements that will make a rhubarb plant thrive. But, luckily, even if conditions aren’t ideal, rhubarb is a very tolerant plant and you’re bound to get a pie or two.

For more rhubarb information and for my favorite rhubarb recipes check out my Rhubarb eCookbook.

Here’s some pictures of rhubarb plants to help you see the different stages.

Just coming out of the ground.



Growing. Sure you could grab a few stalks now, but if you wait just a few more days, you’ll get enough for a pie or two!

Ready to harvest! It will start to flower soon, best time to harvest is right now.

When harvesting, leave 1/3 of the stalks behind during spring time (2/3 of stalks in fall) so the plant can continue to grow and thrive. You’ll have a few more stalks now and then.

Of course, if you have too much rhubarb, don’t like rhubarb or know of anyone who isn’t picking their rhubarb – call a friend, neighbour or a fruit rescuing organization like Fruit Share. They have volunteers eager to pick your rhubarb and share it with local food charities or community organizations. Enjoy!

For more great rhubarb and other fruit recipes and preserving ideas, pick up a copy of the Rhubarb eCookbook! Or check out some of these recipes:

Rhubarb Cinnamon Buns

Stewed Rhubarb

How to Freeze Rhubarb

How to Dehydrate Rhubarb

What will you make with your rhubarb besides pie, cobbler and crisp?

Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this. Getty is a Professional Home Economist, speaker and writer putting good food on tables and agendas. She is the author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener.

Dividing Rhubarb Plants: How And When To Divide Rhubarb

I’m not a pie girl, but an exception can be made for rhubarb strawberry pie. Actually, anything with rhubarb in it is easily coaxed into my mouth. Maybe because it reminds me of the good old days with my great grandmother who made the flakiest pie crust redolent with butter, filled with scarlet berries and rhubarb. Her stalks seemed to require very little care and came up reliably year after year, but realistically, I’m sure dividing rhubarb plants was one of her garden chores. So the question is, how and when to divide rhubarb?

Why is Rhubarb Plant Division Necessary?

Rhubarb leaf stalks and petioles are used primarily in sweet treats and, are hence, regarded as a fruit. Actually, rhubarb is a vegetable, but due to its high acidity, lends itself nicely to pies, tarts, jams, and other sweets.

Rhubarb is a perennial plant that does indeed require very little care and can be relied upon to return each spring. However, if your plant predates the millennium, it is perhaps time for a little refreshing. Why? The root is old and tough and will foster less than premium stalks. Splitting rhubarb will give new life to the plant. Rhubarb is usually harvested in the cool, early months of spring; however, rhubarb plant division can extend the harvest period into the summer months.

When to Divide Rhubarb

To renew your rhubarb plant, you will want to dig up the root and divide it. Dividing rhubarb plants should be accomplished in the early spring as soon as the soil warms up enough to work it and prior to the emergence of the tender new shoots.

How to Divide Rhubarb

Splitting your rhubarb plants isn’t rocket science. Simply dig around the root clump (6 inches deep) and lift the whole plant from the ground. Divide the root ball into sections containing at least one bud and up to two to three buds with plenty of roots by cutting down through the crown between the buds. Very old plants will have roots that are as dense as wood, so you may need the assistance of a hatchet. Fear not, this is the only hard part of splitting the plant.

Keep in mind that the more buds, the bigger the divided plant will be. You can achieve a larger plant by replanting small root divisions with one bud on them in the same hole. Plant the new divisions ASAP; otherwise, they begin to dry out, lessening the likelihood of healthy transplants. If, however, you don’t have time to finish the job immediately, put the root pieces into a plastic bag and store them in the fridge. Prior to transplanting, soak the refrigerated sections in room temperature water over night.

Select a planting site that is in full sun with a slightly acidic soil pH of 6.5. If your soil is particularly dense, form a 4- to 6-inch raised bed to increase drainage prior to planting the new crowns. Amend the soil with 1-2 pounds of 12-12-12 fertilizer per 100 square foot of bedding area, along with compost and a handful of rock phosphate or bone meal per planting hole. Set the plants 2-3 feet apart in rows 3-5 feet apart. Plant the new crowns 6 inches deep so the buds are just beneath the surface. Tamp around the crowns, water in well and mulch around the plants with 3 inches of straw.

In the following spring, rake the straw away from the plants and lay down 2-3 inches of composted manure around the plants; do not cover the crown. Add a layer of straw atop the manure. Add another 3 inches of straw as the manure breaks down.

Lastly, if you want to further extend the harvesting season for your rhubarb, be sure to cut the seed stalk from the plant. The making of seeds signals the plant that it’s all done for the season. Cutting the seeds will trick the plant into continuing to produce delicious ruby red stalks, thereby extending the delectable season for rhubarb strawberry pie.

Mark Diacono advises on how to divide rhubarb plants to help them crop successfully in your garden year after year.

Rhubarb is a trouble-free plant, but after five or six years of cropping, it usually needs dividing or it can get a little tired, only producing thin, spindly stalks. Thankfully, if you learn how to divide rhubarb plants, they can be reinvigorated. It’s a job best done between November and mid-February, while the plant is dormant.

  • First, dig around the plant and lift as much of the woody root out of the ground as you can. Count the eyes – these are the large buds at the top of the plant that will produce next year’s shoots.
  • Split the plant into three or four pieces using a sharp spade, ensuring there is at least one eye in each new piece. You may need to give it some welly – mature rhubarb can develop quite a chunky woody root. It feels like butchery, but rhubarb is robust, and each division will grow and recover, as long as it has an eye.
  • Dig a hole for each piece, slightly deeper than the plant itself, and place it, so that the top is 3cm below soil level, and backfill.
  • Water and mark with a cane to show where each new plant is.
  • Repeat every five years or so (some varieties are even more vigorous and can be divided more frequently) to ensure productive, high-yielding plants that produce strong, thick stalks.

Rhubarb shoots will sprout from the ‘eyes’ in spring Photo:

For expert advice on easy to grow fruit trees for the garden, .

For more how to guides from The English Garden, click here.

Propagating Rhubarb

Rhubarb can be propagated by several means: Dividing the root mass, growing rhubarb from seeds, or by Tissue Culture. Of course, you can always purchase rhubarb plants or rhizomes ready to plant in your garden. See the list of sources for a few of the mail order companies that sell rhubarb.

Dividing and Thinning Rhubarb

Rhubarb can propagated by planting pieces obtained by dividing the crown. Pieces are taken from 4-5 year old crowns. You can divide earlier if you desire more plants. Dividing can be done either in the spring or the fall with equal success, but I have found early spring is best. I wait until early growth is just starting so I can see where to best divide the root mass. Dig up the crowns and roots being careful not to damage the crown. Cut the roots into 4 to 8 pieces. It is recommended to split dormant crowns between large buds or “eyes” so that at least a 2-inch cross section of storage root is left with each bud. Be careful of is not to break off the delicate buds which are easily broken, but otherwise the roots are quite tough and will tolerate quite a bit of rough handling. Very small buds will give small plants for the first few years after planting, while four to ten new roots can usually be obtained from crowns that have been grown a few years. Root pieces should be protected from drying or freezing if they are not to be planted immediately. When dividing crowns for re-planting, it is important to mark the vigorous plants in June and use them as planting stock the following spring. Crowns should not be divided from diseased plants.

Step by Step: Dividing A Rhubarb Plant

This (below) is the original plant last summer (1996). It is 4 years old. It doesn’t really need to be divided but I want to move it to a different location so I will take the opportunity now. As shown here the plant is over 3 feet (90 cm) in width and the leaves are about 1 foot (30.5 cm) across. This plant is the Victoria variety which produces very green stalks and grows rather vigorously and quite large.

Mature Rhubarb Victoria Plant
photo credit

You can divide rhubarb with equal success in either early spring or late fall. Shown here is the plant in early spring (mid March) 1997. Spring came early to Maryland this year so the rhubarb is growing already. This makes it easier to divide but I think its more stressful on the plant. Next time I will divide them in the late fall. The early growth shown here is about 6 inches (15 cm) tall.

Early Spring Growth
photo credit

Dig up the root ball being careful to not destroy too many roots. Shown here is the same plant as immediately above. you will notice that some of the roots extend from the rhizome for 16 inches (40 cm) or more. You can’t help but break some of these, but that’s ok. Here I show you where I plan to make the first division. This plant has two major clumps of “buds”. You can see this by looking at the clumps of petioles (stems). There are 8-10 possible plants here if I divide carefully.

For the first division I simply use a shovel to cut through the root/rhizome cluster between the “buds” of new growth. Careful study of the cluster will reveal old, rotten, rhizome and roots. This is a good area to cut through. After I separate the 2 clumps I repeat this several times. Each new plant will have a small rhizome, some roots, and a “bud” of new growth (because its spring).

I have now divided this into eight new rhubarb plants. Some are large chunks of rhizome, others are just little root/rhizome/bud slivers about 3 inches (8 cm) in length. All of these will grow into mature, healthy plants if properly re-planted.

Before I re-plant the divisions I examine the rhizome/root area for excessive rot and decay. If there is a significant amount I would discard this division. Here there is very little rot and I cut that off. There will usually be some rot as this is part of the normal growth of the plant. You can also see how large the rhizome/root mass is. Some old (10 years old more more) plants can have root masses that are 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter and 1 foot (30 cm) deep. This is a young plant by comparison.

Rhubarb Root
photo credit

Here is one of the divisions in its new home. Notice that I have planted it in a mixture of garden soil and compost (50%). Rhubarbs like compost! Be sure to water well and check frequently. I will cut off the largest leaves on this division as they will only drain the strength from the plant and they will probably wilt and rot anyway. The new plant needs its strength for developing new roots.

Rhubarb Tissue Culture

Rhubarb is often commercially propagated by tissue culture. The Kentville Research Center has been the site of research on propagation of rhubarb. The current interest in growing rhubarb on a commercial scale has been stimulated by increasing demand for it, but growers are faced with two difficult decisions: What are the best varieties? Where can healthy planting stock be found? The Kentville Research Center is providing assistance through the technique of micropropagation which consists of starting test tube cultures from minute growing tips (meristems). These meristems are dissected out of buds and when provided with proper nutrients and plant hormones will grow and multiply. The benefits of this propagation technique include disease free plants and year round rapid multiplication. Rhubarb micropropagation techniques are now available for commercial tissue culture labs to exploit and rhubarb growers can look forward to a secure supply of healthy plants.


Rhubarb is one of the first food plants ready for harvest each spring. Bright red stalks start appearing at the market just about the same time as strawberries, making strawberry-rhubarb combinations a natural.

My friends, knowing I’m a big fan of rhubarb, will try to stump me, asking if rhubarb is a fruit or a vegetable. We eat the stalks so it’s a vegetable like celery, right?

Botanically, rhubarb is indeed a vegetable, but the United States Customs Court ruled in 1947 that rhubarb is a fruit, since it’s used mainly as a fruit, in sweetened dishes. The court was asked to rule because they were deciding if imported rhubarb would be taxed as a fruit or a vegetable, and it turns out that fruits have lower duty rates.

Rhubarb is one of my favorite tastes of spring. When I moved to Atlanta I planted it in my garden and looked forward to my own private source. Unfortunately, rhubarb doesn’t survive our summers here and my plants melted. If you want to buy local rhubarb, you’ll have to move a little further north. It thrives in colder climates, growing through the snow in places like Michigan and Vermont.

I love rhubarb for its tartness and its color. Stalks can range from bright crimson red to light pink. There are even some varieties that grow green stalks. They all taste pretty much the same, but we consumers usually favor the brightest red varieties.

Sometimes you’ll find a few bits of leaf still attached to the stalk. You should remove those. People say they’re poisonous. It’s true that the leaves contain oxalic acid but you’d have to eat several pounds to consume a lethal dose. Still you should remove them as they’ll add nothing to the taste of your finished dish.

Most of us eat it cooked, stewed with sugar or baked into a pie with strawberries. I’ve put up rhubarb jam and made fresh rhubarb juice which is a nice alternative for making “lemonade” and a gorgeous pink color besides. My next experiment will be quick pickled rhubarb with just a little vinegar, sugar and salt. Perfect for a nibble with cocktails.

When you’re buying rhubarb, look for firm, glossy stalks. Wrap them loosely and put into your vegetable crisper where they’ll keep for up to two weeks if they’re really fresh.

At local farmers markets

Cooking demos:

10 a.m. Saturday, May 5. Chef Ryan Smith, Empire State South. Peachtree Road Farmers Market, Atlanta.

11:30 a.m. Sunday, May 6. Chef Asata. Grant Park Farmers Market, Atlanta.

For sale

From local reports

Rhubarb-Strawberry Salsa with Grilled Pork Tenderloin

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves: 4

I’d never eaten rhubarb raw until I created this recipe, inspired by a number of different versions I found in my reading. It turns out to be delicious, crunchy and tart. The chopped rhubarb reminds me a little of tomatillos. It works perfectly in salsa.

1/4 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lime, divided

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 (20-ounce) pork tenderloin, trimmed

3/4 cup diced rhubarb (about 1/4 pound)

1/4 cup diced strawberries (about 2 large)

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

2 teaspoons minced jalapeno, or to taste

1 teaspoon granulated sugar, more if needed

10 ounces fresh spinach, rinsed

Preheat grill to very hot. Lightly oil grill grates.

In a small bowl, stir together olive oil, half the lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper.

Put tenderloin on plate and pour half olive oil mixture over tenderloin. Rub oil mixture on all sides of tenderloin and set aside to rest at room temperature while grill heats. Reserve remaining olive oil mixture.

In a medium bowl, stir together rhubarb, strawberries, cilantro, jalapeno, remaining lime juice and sugar. Toss and season to taste with salt, pepper and additional sugar if needed. Set aside until pork is cooked.

When grill is ready, cook pork tenderloin until its temperature reaches 145 degrees, turning to brown all sides, about 10 minutes total. Remove pork from grill, cover with foil and allow to rest.

In a quart-size microwave proof bowl, steam spinach in microwave for 3 minutes or until just wilted. Remove from microwave and toss with remaining olive oil mixture. Arrange on platter. Slice tenderloin in 1/2-inch pieces and arrange over spinach. Spoon salsa on platter and serve immediately.

Per serving: 320 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 32 grams protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 19 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 92 milligrams cholesterol, 395 milligrams sodium.

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Get ready for rhubarb season

Lori Skoog – local gardener/grower extraordinaire – harvests rhubarb at Skoog Farm in the town of Sweden in a photo taken during the 2015 harvest. Lori makes scrumptious pies with her lovely tart leaf stalks. K. Gabalski photo

I love fruit and sometimes I like to think of my garden as a pie garden. I have raspberries, grapes, apples, cherries, currants, and – even though it’s really considered a vegetable – rhubarb, which I love to use for pies.

It has become a tradition for me to start the summer season with the baking of a rhubarb pie on Memorial Day weekend. Come September, the summer season ends on Labor Day weekend with the baking of an apple pie – both of which are made with produce from my garden. Pie making is deliciously satisfying for me and I love to be able to use what I grow in my own yard. It’s edible landscaping at its best, I think.

The rhubarb harvest is currently underway in our area and although strawberry/rhubarb is a June delicacy, rhubarb sauces and pies are a tasty way to feature the tart home-grown treat on its own.

Growing rhubarb is not difficult and if you have at least a corner of your yard for a few plants, it’s fun to grow. The harvest is early in the season, which I really like because at this point I feel like I can’t stand it any longer until the local produce season begins.

Purchase rhubarb roots or potted rhubarb at your garden center and carefully consider the location for planting, as rhubarb can be a long-lived plant. Rhubarb loves well-drained, deep, fertile soil, high in organic matter. You might want to consider improving your soil the year before you plant.

Rhubarb can tolerate part-shade, but for highest yields, plant in full sun in a spot with consistent moisture. Dormant crowns should be planted in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. Potted plants can be planted at any time. Crowns should be planted 1-3 inches deep and 2-3 feet apart – give your rhubarb plenty of room to grow and a spot with good air circulation.

Mulching helps retain moisture and suppress weeds. The plants require little or no fertilizer.

The first year, remove flower stalks, which form when the weather grows warmer. This strengthens the developing plant. Do not harvest leaf stems until the second year and hold off on a major harvest until the third year when the plants are well established.

To harvest, pull leaves with stalks in a gently twisting motion. Use only the stalks – the leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic in high doses. Leaves can be composted or used as a mulch. Refrigerate stalks for one week. Place them in a plastic bag or wrap in a damp cloth. Stalks can also be frozen, cooked or raw, in an airtight container.

Use rhubarb for pies, jams or sauces. An easy sauce can be made with 10 cups cubed rhubarb, three cups sugar and one teaspoon ground cinnamon.

Place rhubarb in a large pot and almost cover with water. Bring to a boil and then simmer over medium heat until very tender – about 20 minutes, while stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and add sugar and cinnamon until dissolved.

Serve hot or cold (

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