Of the several hundred thousand heirloom vegetable cultivars throughout the world, only a handful qualify as all-time greats, with qualities so universally sought after that they’re prized by gardeners everywhere. Ranking high on this list is ‘Victoria’ rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum). This cultivar has established the gold standard by which to judge good rhubarb: large, fat stems, bright red skin, lack of stringiness, and a tart, apple-gooseberry flavor with a hint of lemon or grapefruit (depending on your soil). Used in jams, fruit tarts, soups and sauces, and even ice cream, rhubarb is probably one of the most adaptable garden crops you can grow. And because it’s a perennial, it will yield years of copious harvests with little trouble and few pests.
Although rhubarb is technically a vegetable, North Americans tend to treat it as a fruit because our view of the plant has been shaped by the sweet and sour desserts of English origin. But beyond English cuisine, rhubarb is used in a wide range of dishes.
‘Victoria,’ Queen of the Kitchen Garden
‘Victoria’ has not been improved upon since its creation almost 175 years ago — a testament to its superiority. The creator of this famous heirloom rhubarb was Joseph Myatt of Manor Farm in Deptford, England, a plant breeder who also created a slew of good strawberries, potatoes, peas, and more. Myatt’s ‘Victoria’ rhubarb was introduced in 1837 in honor of Queen Victoria, and in many ways, his rhubarb came to symbolize the dessert cookery of her reign: rhubarb charlottes, rhubarb fools (similar to a parfait), rhubarb compotes, rhubarb tarts, and even rhubarb wine — none of which would have assumed their place in Victorian cookbooks had there been no ‘Victoria’ to cook with. Horticulturists have often claimed it was ‘Victoria’ that mainstreamed rhubarb cookery in both England and the United States.
Two physical characteristics of ‘Victoria’ that made it stand out from other cultivars were its bright red color and large stems. Older heirloom cultivars tended to have mostly green stems or, like ‘Early Champagne,’ completely green stems. Cooks of the period were familiar with the yellow-stemmed ‘Pineapple’ rhubarb, but yellow rhubarb cultivars often lacked good flavor.
Rhubarb is usually grown from dormant rootstocks in spring or from potted plants. Plant the rootstocks at least 3 to 4 feet apart after your area’s last frost. The stems and leaves of ‘Victoria’ are big — some as long as 4 feet — so you’ll need to give the plants plenty of room. When harvesting, gently pull the stem from the crown area of the root so that you remove the stem’s base. Cutting off the stems with a knife leaves a stump to rot and perhaps introduce damaging insects to the plant. By pulling off the entire stem, you’ll actually create a spot for more leaves to form, so you can maintain production throughout summer.
Rhubarb blooms in late May and early June, or well into summer with some cultivars. It’s common practice for gardeners to cut off the flower stalks as soon as they form so the rhubarb crop will linger longer into summer. ‘Victoria’ will produce all season and right up to frost if you keep it cropped and water it during dry weather. Mulch with straw during the summer months, or simply choose a semishaded plot — rhubarb is one of the few crops that doesn’t mind a little shade.
‘Victoria’ rhubarb’s color and size depend on a number of factors, especially rainfall, particularly in spring when rhubarb is at its best. Rich soil that’s well-endowed with rotten manure or compost will give rhubarb a boost in early growth, which will lead to more intense red color and produce long, succulent stems.
As with all rhubarb, stem size will vary with ‘Victoria.’ This cultivar has been grown for so long that it has evolved into a number of subtypes. While soil fertility will induce heavy growth of the stems, the quality of your initial plants is what counts most. So purchase your ‘Victoria’ plants from a trusted company — which will determine whether you end up with spindly rhubarb or fat, succulent harvests.
Note that rhubarb leaves cannot be eaten because they contain oxalic acid. The acid is also found in the edible stems, but it breaks down in the cooking process. The concentration in the leaves is high enough that they’re unsafe to eat, even cooked.
When you get the hang of cooking with rhubarb, start thinking of the plant as an alternative to lemon juice, then try experimenting with combinations of meat and rhubarb, such as rhubarb and duck, or even rhubarb and herring. Rhubarb can be easily chopped and frozen, so you can enjoy it all winter in sweet and savory dishes. (Check out our Rustic Plum Tart Recipe, a mouthwatering French recipe that can be made with rhubarb!) A little creativity in the kitchen will open your eyes to rhubarb’s true potential.