Rhubarb is the Tart of the Spring Harvest


Rhubarb is one of the earliest vegetables to appear each year, and is an early sign of spring. Celebrate spring by planting your very own rhubarb plant, which will provide a delicious harvest for years to come.

Rhubarb is a perennial plant that grows floppy elephant-ear type leaves attached to edible stalks similar to celery.

“The leaves should never be eaten, raw or cooked, because they are extremely toxic. The stalks are edible, but have an acidic, tart taste and a fibrous texture,” said Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension. “Cooking the rhubarb stalks with sugar or fruit creates a sweet-sour balance that many find delicious. Cooking also serves to soften the texture, increasing the palatability.”


Rhubarb contains many phytochemicals which help to support health and prevent disease. It was reportedly used as early as 2700 BC for medicinal purposes. The first record of using rhubarb stalks for food was in England during the 17th century, for rhubarb tarts. Rhubarb pie later became popular in America, leading to rhubarb’s nickname as the “pie plant.”

“Rhubarb is naturally low in calories, containing 26 calories per cup. Rhubarb’s flavor blends well with other fruits, which in turn may help to cut the tartness of rhubarb without the need for large amounts of added table sugar,” said Duitsman.

Rhubarb contains high levels of oxalate, which is naturally present in many foods. For people who form calcium oxalate stones, the leading type of kidney stones, it may be beneficial to moderate intake of rhubarb.


March is the time to plant rhubarb in Missouri. Rhubarb should not be harvested at all the first year, and only a few stalks should be taken the second year. This is important to ensure the plant is well established, and will last for many years.

Harvest rhubarb when the stalks are 10 to 15 inches long. Medium-size stalks are generally tenderer than large ones, which may be stringy. Choose firm stalks, which are not shriveled or limp. Grasp the stalk near its base and pull up and slightly to one side.

“Be sure to trim and cut off the leaves, and then wash the stalks. Store dry stalks in a plastic bag in the crisper of the refrigerator. Use within one week,” said Duitsman.

Before cooking, trim stalks at the top and bottom. Trim any bruised spots. For sauces or stewing, cut the rhubarb into one-half to one-inch chunks.

“The two popular cooking methods include baking in recipes and stewing for sauces. When cooking rhubarb do not use aluminum, iron or copper pans. The high acidity will react with the metal causing the rhubarb to turn a brownish color and discolor the pan,” said Duitsman.


Freezing is a simple and easy way to preserve rhubarb when it is abundant, and in season, so that you can use it throughout the year right from your own freezer.

Remember to use packaging designed for freezer storage. Plastic heavy weight freezer bags or rigid freezer cartons are good choices.

“Rhubarb freezes well. Whether you get your rhubarb from a farmer’s market, farm stand, or your own back yard garden, follow this simple process,” said Duitsman.

She recommends starting by removing leaves, trimming stems at both ends, and washing the produce. Cut the stalks into the appropriate size to fit the freezer bag or container you are using, or into the diced sizes needed for your recipe later on.

One-half inch is the usual size for most recipes. Pack dry rhubarb into the freezer grade container, filling it two-thirds full, and pressing out as much air as possible. Label and date your freezer grade bag or container so that you can remember to use it within one year. Make sure the seal is nice and tight, and place in a freezer set at 0 degrees F.

“When you are ready to use the rhubarb, use the same amount of frozen as you would fresh for your recipe. There is no need to defrost the rhubarb ahead of time,” said Duitsman.

For more information on nutrition contact any of these nutrition specialists in southwest Missouri: Dr. Pam Duitsman in Greene County at (417) 881-8909; Lindsey Gordon Stevenson in Barton County at (417) 682-3579; Stephanie Johnson in Howell County at (417) 256-2391 or Mary Sebade in Dallas County at (417) 345-7551.


Serves 5 (1/3-cup servings); 140 calories per serving; 0 fat; 4 g dietary fiber; 26 g total sugars; 8% of daily calcium; 10% of daily potassium


  • 4 cups rhubarb, cut in one half inch chunks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 3 cups strawberries, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring


  1. Combine the first three ingredients in a medium saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes or until the rhubarb is tender.
  2. Combine 1 tablespoon water and cornstarch; stir well, and add to rhubarb mixture. Bring to a boil, stir constantly, and cook 1 minute or until thickened.
  3. Remove from heat; stir in strawberries and vanilla. Serve warm or chill over custard, low-fat ice cream, or angel food cake.

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