Rhubarb Rising

April 30, 2012

For close to twenty years, the rhubarb plant that my husband long ago committed to the soil has been a loyal garden friend. Always showing up when expected, always graceful and full of sturdy elephant-like leaves and bright red stalks, it suddenly is no more. I had to make an executive chef’s decision that it was weakening with age. Its once thick ruby red stalks were reduced to pencil thin green ones that were woody and tough. This could not be good in my Rhubarb Fig Pie!

And so it had to go, but not without a fight. Struggling and tugging, digging and coaxing, I finally evicted it from its home, roots and all, and tossed it on the compost heap. (Don’t worry, the poisonous leaves and roots will do no damage to the compost). What I was left with was a gaping hole about 2 feet deep. My husband was beside himself when he saw the naked spot and questioned the wisdom of what I had done, reminding me that this heirloom plant had been like a family pet.

Feeling guilty, the next day I went to the garden center searching for a new rhubarb plant. Who knew that there were so many varieties? As I read the tags, I learned that the word rhubarb comes from the Latin rha barbarum, a name given it by the Romans because it grew along the banks of the river Rha, the ancient name for the Volga River, which was unknown territory or barbarian territory at the time, so the word rhubarb really means from the barbarian Rha.

Rhubarb is a member of the buckwheat family, and many varieties have been domesticated. The rhubarb grown in America is actually a hybrid of Chinese rhubarb, which was developed in the nineteenth century. The deep red petiole is the more popular I was told, but these plants often do not do as well as green varieties which can be more productive. And I always thought that red-stemmed rhubarb was better and sweeter, but not true. The Victoria variety, which is probably the greenest variety, can produce some very sweet stalks. Some other varieties worth trying are Canadian Red and Cherry Red. I could not make up my mind which to get, so I bought Victoria, with its green stalks and Cherry Red for its brilliant red color.

Now these two plants flank each end of the garden and my husband happily tends them with expectations that they will rise with vigor and grow well into old age, while I anxiously await the first harvesting for making such favorites as rhubarb fig pie and rhubarb sauce to generously spoon over ice cream, cottage cheese and use as an accompaniment to juicy pan fried pork chops. It’s just not spring without it!

Here’s the recipe for my Rhubarb and Fig Pie.

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