Spring: Time for Rhubarb!


A sure sign that spring is arriving is rhubarb starting to grow! Although it is technically a vegetable, it is used as a fruit since it is highly acidic which gives it the distinctive tart flavor. It is delicious combined with strawberries for a pie, made into bars or crisps, or a sauce poured over ice cream or cake. It also works well as a savory accompaniment for meats such as poultry, venison, salmon, and halibut. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg complement the tartness of rhubarb.

“Rhubarb is a rich source of nutrients providing 45% of Daily Value of Vitamin K in a serving size of 1 cup. In addition, rhubarb contains Vitamin C and A, along with Folate, Riboflavin, and Niacin. Rhubarb provides 32% of the Daily Value of manganese in a serving. Other nutrient/minerals include Iron, Potassium and Phosphorus. Rhubarb is also comprised of phytochemicals and phenols that provide the body with additional health benefits. The antioxidants present in the deep red stalks contain anthocyanin and lycopene, which have been shown to help prevent cardiovascular disease and have anti-carcinogenic effects towards the prevention of cancer. Over forty-two types of phytonutrients and chemicals are present in rhubarb,” (Purdue Extension). Rhubarb also provides fiber which is important for maintaining a healthy digestive system and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Although it can be eaten raw, rhubarb tends to be too tart so it is usually cooked with sugar or other sweeteners. There are any number of ways to prepare rhubarb. Purdue Extension cautions to always use a nonreactive pan (such as stainless steel or enamel-lined cast iron) when cooking with rhubarb. Using other types of pans can cause chemical reactions with the acidic content in rhubarb. “Recipes generally call for pounds, cups, or number of stalks. Three to five stalks make about 1 pound. One pound of rhubarb makes about 4 cups of raw chopped rhubarb. Four stalks of rhubarb equals approximately 2 cups of diced rhubarb. A 12 oz. package of frozen rhubarb equals approximately 1 1/2 cups,” (University of Wyoming Extension).

Rhubarb can produce more than can be used fresh. Fortunately, it is an excellent candidate for preservation by canning, freezing or making into jam or jelly to enjoy later in the summer or next winter. Use these links to successfully can or freeze rhubarb or turn it into delicious jelly or jam. It also makes excellent juice.
Canning rhubarb.
Freezing rhubarb.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Jelly.
Strawberry Rhubarb Jam (also available in Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, 2006, p. 32 or 2020, p. 30.)
Sunshine Rhubarb Juice Concentrate. (also available in Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, 2006, p. 193 or 2020, p. 191)

Spring weather can change quickly in the Midwest; fortunately, rhubarb is a sturdy plant that can withstand cold temperatures after it has started to grow. If a frost occurs, check your plant in a few days. If the leaves and the stalks are blackened and soft, remove them. Any new growth will be safe to eat. If the stalks do not show any sign of damage from the frost those stalks are safe to eat.

Rhubarb is easy to grow. Stalks should be selected from plants that are at least two years old to maintain the vigor of the plant. For more information on planting and growing rhubarb, check out Growing Rhubarb in Iowa and Growing Rhubarb in Home Gardens. An old wives tale we hear often is that rhubarb is poisonous if eaten later in the summer. Rhubarb does not become poisonous, but harvesting later in the summer may weaken the plant and make it less productive the following year.

Rhubarb, one of the first of spring’s jewels, offers endless opportunities to enjoy year round. Enjoy all that rhubarb has to offer and boost your health, too!

Rhubarb, Love It for Its Taste; Eat It for Your Health, Purdue Extension
Enjoy This Nutritional Powerhouse’s Tartness Softened by Sweet, University of Wyoming Extension
Rhubarb, Purdue Extension Food Link
Michigan Fresh: Using, Storing and Preserving Rhubarb (HN148), Michigan State University Extension
Rhubarb Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits, VeryWellFit.com

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Freezing Rhubarb

stalks of rhubarb chopped into small pieces
Stalks of rhubarb partially chopped. Photo- Canva.com

If your rhubarb plants are producing more than can be used fresh, consider freezing rhubarb to enjoy later in the summer or next winter.  Rhubarb freezes well and is just as nutritious and flavorful as fresh rhubarb. It is easily used in recipes without sacrificing quality. Read on for the easiest way to freeze fresh rhubarb successfully.

A few notes before getting into freezing. Rhubarb is a short-season vegetable; harvest may take place from early spring until mid-to-late June in the Midwest. Harvesting after that time, or over-harvesting, will weaken the plant and may reduce the yield and quality of next year’s crop. While the rhubarb stalks do become more woody later in the summer, they do not become poisonous. Harvest stalks that are at least 12 inches long and about thumb thick. When buying rhubarb at the grocery store or farmer’s markets, look for bright, firm stalks with no blemishes or brown spots.

Step-By-Step Freezing Guide

Prepare – Choose firm, tender, well-colored stalks with good flavor and few fibers. Remove the leaves and trim the ends. Wash, dry, and cut into preferred size pieces. Heating rhubarb in boiling water for 1 minute and cooling promptly in cold water helps retain color and flavor but is not necessary.

Pack – Choose a pack method that fits intended future use. The National Center for Home Food Preservations offers these methods:

  • Tray Pack. Tray packing is the best way to keep the rhubarb pieces from freezing in a clump allowing one to take out and use as much as needed for cooking or baking. Pieces are cut, placed on a baking tray, flash frozen, bagged, labeled and refrozen.
  • Dry Pack. Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers or freezer bags without sugar. This method works well where the rhubarb will be later cooked into jams or sauces.
  • Syrup Pack. Pack either raw or preheated rhubarb tightly into containers, cover with cold 40 percent syrup. This method gives good results for rhubarb that may be stewed or juiced.

Freeze – Use containers or bags specifically made for freezing. Leave headspace. Seal, label, and freeze. Properly frozen, packaged and stored rhubarb will last indefinitely in the freezer but is best used within 12 months.  Frozen rhubarb can be substituted for fresh rhubarb in many recipes. Frozen rhubarb will release juices as it thaws; do not discard the juice as it is part of the rhubarb.

A YouTube, How to Freeze Rhubarb by The University of Maine Cooperative Extension shows just how quick and easy it is to freeze rhubarb!

Updated 4/2024 mg.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Rhubarb is UP!

Rhubarb on May 3, 2013

Yes, the rhubarb is up in my garden and now I must be patient for it to grow to maturity. At that point the stalks can be used in tarts, pies, sauces, jams, jellies, puddings and drinks. My favorite way to use rhubarb is to make it into a crisp – it tastes as good as a pie but has far fewer calories since it has no crust. I tend to like my desserts a little less sweet, so feel free to use only as much sugar as you need for your taste.

Wait to harvest your rhubarb until the plant is three years old. This allows the leaves to grow and produce food for good crown and root development. During the third year, harvest only for a four week period. Wait until the stalks are 10 to 15 inches long, then grasp the stalk below the leaf and pull up slightly to one side. Remove leaves by cutting slightly below the leaf and discard them. Since the leaves contain a moderately poisonous oxalic acid, they should never be eaten.

If you have enough rhubarb to freeze, when it comes time to use the frozen rhubarb, measure while it is still frozen, then thaw completely. Drain in a colander and use the fruit in your recipe without pressing the liquid out.

The taste alone encourages me to cook with rhubarb, but the nutritional benefits of rhubarb are also significant. Rhubarb is high in calcium, lutein, vitamin k and antioxidants.

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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