Crop Spot: Rhubarb Season in Michigan

After a long Michigan winter, rhubarb is one of the first vegetables (or fruit, to some!) to push its way through the freshly thawed soil. Once a plant is established, its hardy stalks, or petioles, will return dutifully each year for your harvest pies and tangy jams or compotes!

A Little History

Did you know Michigan has a special connection with this unique spring crop? Just 20 miles north of Detroit, the city of Sterling Heights was once dubbed the “Rhubarb Capital of the United States” according to the City of Sterling Heights’ historical archives. In 1961, Sterling Heights produced five million pounds of rhubarb — that was 65% of the world’s hot house rhubarb. During that time, steam-heated hothouses freckled the vast farmland of the southeast region, but since then urban sprawl displaced the majority of operations. Don’t worry, though. If you like rhubarb, you don’t need a hothouse to grow it!

How to Grow Rhubarb

If you’re looking to establish new rhubarb plants, do so early in the spring. Although it’s possible to grow rhubarb from seed, the majority of rhubarb plants are started through planting a division taken from an existing crown, from which the new rhubarb shoots grow. After planting, it’s best to wait two years before harvesting so the plant has ample time for energy storage. When your rhubarb is ready for harvest, twist the stalks and pull! Make sure you discard the leaves due to their toxic levels of oxalic acid. You can keep the trimmed stalks in the crisper or cut into 1 inch pieces to freeze up to a year in a closed container. 

If you want to enjoy rhubarb a little earlier in the season, consider “forcing” it. To force rhubarb at home, cover it with a black bucket. The heat generated inside, combined with the leaves’ search for light, will produce fast growing stalks ready for harvest much sooner than plants grown in a natural environment. Once the leaves begin to lift the bucket, it’s time for harvest! 

Cooking with Rhubarb

Michigan’s rhubarb season provides residents with a great opportunity to get creative in the kitchen. Due to its tart flavor, rhubarb is often cooked with plenty of sugar. For example, strawberry rhubarb pie is a household favorite. Looking for something more unique? How about this Rhubarb Ginger Puree to pair with grilled pork or chicken? Or what about this Rhubarb Pudding recipe from Martha Ryan of Martha’s Leelanau Table fame? Just don’t forget the whipped cream!

Emily Row is the Content Creator at Taste the Local Difference.

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