Homestead Stories: Great Grandpa’s Rhubarb

The first heavy frost has just hit and the temperature has taken a nose dive well below freezing. The gardens are all tucked in their beds, well covered with leaves.

Little nobs still poke their heads above the frozen earth, but the remnants of my great grandfather’s rhubarb are well blanketed with a thick layer of leaves from the nearby oak tree. All that remains are the memories of a sweet, sour treat from late spring and the promise of more after the ground thaws again.

But wait! I have a freezer full of chopped rhubarb and containers of prepared rhubarb sauce. Lucky me! I don’t have to go without all winter long. Just as well – I love the stuff. And, it’s the first thing I look for when the snow melts in late March.

There’s something about rhubarb that suggests spring. First, the crinkled leaves push forth through the once, and still partially, frozen earth. The small crumpled balls of green fluff expand into large umbrellas protecting the fruit that shoots up in tall, deep red stalks.

With plush, shiny green tops and long, spindly red stalks, the plant will grow just about anywhere and makes a tidy, unique contribution to any garden. Vegetable, fruit, or flower, it fits well just about anywhere. It even produces flowers! Small, greenish-white, sometimes pinkish balls of puffy, little flowers. Very attractive.

There are wild varieties of rhubarb. These plants are not as attractive with their spindly, green stalks and dull, matte-colored leaves. The kitchen garden variety is much more attractive. And it is edible. At least, the stalk is: sweet, sour, crunchy when fresh and moist and mushy when cooked.

rhubarb garden
My Great Grandfather’s rhubarb patch alive and well in my garden. Emily-Jane Orford / Insteading

I remember as a child watching my mother chop up the washed rhubarb stalks. She would cut me a chunk, roll it in sugar and hand it to me to enjoy. Crunchy like celery, it tasted bitter and sour, but the sweetness of the sugar brought out the juices and made it into a refreshing treat. I didn’t know then, but apparently, this is a special treat for children in many countries. Much better than the unhealthy, pre-packaged garbage most children crave.

The rhubarb, when cooked with sugar, or better yet, with other fruits like strawberries or apples, not only softens up, but it also turns into a moist, bitter-sweet compote. It can be used to make sauces, crumbles, pies, and even cakes and cookies. And don’t forget the jam.

My favorite has always been rhubarb ginger jam. Yum! I have also heard of people using rhubarb to make wine or sima. When cold, it’s a refreshing drink in the summer months.

There are many benefits to eating rhubarb. It’s very high in fiber and makes for a good laxative. Not to mention, it’s much tastier (and healthier) than the over-the-counter drug type of laxative. Research has also proven that it lowers blood glucose levels, which is a benefit for diabetics.

Rhubarb Has A History

The Chinese were perhaps the first to use rhubarb for its medicinal purposes. In fact, it was one of the first Chinese medicines to be exported to Europe, sometime in the fourteenth century. The European colonists brought rhubarb seeds to the New World, and records show that it was grown and cultivated as early as the eighteenth century.

The popularity of rhubarb increased considerably in the twentieth century between the two world wars. Perhaps the fact that it grew anywhere and with little fuss, made it a good crop for the Depression years.

Watch Out For The Leaves

It seems wasteful to discard the leaves. They are, after all, the largest part of the plant. However, beware! These leaves, though green and attractive in their own right, are actually very toxic, even poisonous.

Our rhubarb plant really is the gift that keeps on giving. ?

A post shared by EP Holcomb (@e.p.holcomb) on

Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid or oxalates. It’s a colorless substance frequently used in metal polishes, stain removers and bleaches. The symptoms of rhubarb leaf poisoning can be quite severe and if not treated quickly, can lead to death. Fear not, just don’t eat the leaves.

Rhubarb: More Than A Tasty Treat

I have numerous memories of rhubarb. As a very young child, I would help my great-grandfather harvest his very prolific rhubarb patch. This rhubarb is the foundation of my rhubarb patch today, 50 years later.

Just as prolific and overgrown as my great grandfather’s, my rhubarb is over a century old. The rhubarb I have is also known as heritage rhubarb, though some people call it strawberry rhubarb as the stalks are very red.

Whenever I serve rhubarb pie to guests, I listen to the praise. When asked my secret ingredient, I answer, “It’s my great- grandfather’s rhubarb.” And the recipe? “My great- grandmother’s pie.”

The looks on my guests’ faces suggest they believe that my pie has been around for a long time. But really, it’s the rhubarb. And as heritage rhubarb, it’s much redder and sweeter than the more cultivated plants you might find in the local nursery.

I have carted my great-grandfather’s rhubarb from one new home to another, across the country, from coast to coast. It has survived each move, and after a year in its new garden, my rhubarb produces full and luscious stalks to re-stock my freezer and fill my pies and sauces.

As my great grandfather often said, “You can’t kill rhubarb.” Although others, who have killed the plant, would challenge this statement.

It is a very resilient plant. However, it is possible to kill it. My great grandfather’s garden, including his wonderful rhubarb patch, is now covered in concrete and used as a parking lot. Sad, but true. However, his rhubarb does live on – in my garden.

Rhubarb Cobbler


  • 4 cups fresh rhubarb; leaves and roots removed, chopped
  • ¼ cup coarse maple sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • ⅓ cup coarse maple sugar
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup extra-light olive oil
  • ¼ cup rice milk


  1. Lightly grease a medium-sized casserole with extra-light olive oil.
  2. Place the chopped rhubarb in casserole and sprinkle evenly with ¼ cup coarse maple sugar and cinnamon.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients. This should be a relatively dry mixture.
  4. Drop crumbled topping mixture over top of the rhubarb mixture.
  5. Bake in preheated 375°F oven for about 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold. Makes four to six servings.

Basic Rhubarb Sauce


  • 4 cups fresh rhubarb; leaves and roots removed, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons cold water
  • ½ cup coarse maple sugar


  1. Bring all of the ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring occasionally.
  2. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Let cool and serve or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
  4. May be served hot or cold, alone or on sliced bananas or other fruit.

Apple Rhubarb Sauce


  • 4 tart apples, peeled, cored and chopped
  • ¼ cup coarse maple sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 4 cups fresh rhubarb; leaves and roots removed, chopped


  1. Bring all of the ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring occasionally.
  2. Simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Let cool and serve or store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
  4. May be served hot or cold, alone or on sliced bananas or other fruit.

Rhubarb Pie


  • Prepared pie pastry (top and bottom)
  • 4 cups chopped, fresh rhubarb
  • ½ cup coarse maple sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon


  1. Lightly flour the counter and rolling pin.
  2. Roll out half of the pastry to about ¼-inch thickness and line a large pie pan with the pastry.
  3. Fill with prepared rhubarb.
  4. Sprinkle with coarse maple sugar and cinnamon.
  5. Roll out remaining pastry and cover the rhubarb mixture with this pastry.
  6. Seal the edges by pinching the pastry with fingers.
  7. Make cuts across the top to allow the steam to escape during the baking process.
  8. Place on a pan (to catch any overflow) in a preheated 400°F oven and bake for 15 minutes.
  9. Lower the temperature to 375°F and continue baking for about another hour, or until the top crust is nicely browned. Serve hot or cold. Serves 6-8 people.

*Note: The above recipes call for maple sugar, but granulated or brown sugar may be substituted. Also, frozen chopped rhubarb may be substituted for the fresh rhubarb.

Today’s post is brought to you by award-winning author and artist, Emily-Jane Hills Orford. When this author isn’t writing, creating collage paintings, working on her needlework or composing, you’ll find her in the garden. Even in the winter, gardening is not far from her thoughts as she plans and prepares for the next season and the next growing adventure. Using pressed flowers from her garden, this author/artist/composer, is gardening indoors with multi-faceted garden ideas re-created on canvas.

Written by Insteading Community Authors

This blog post was submitted by one of our community members (scroll up for their personal bio). We welcome guest posts from the community that fit with our writer guidelines. Click here to learn more about how to write for Insteading.

One Comment

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  1. Hallo Nifty Homesteaders, I am a new follower since 8/12/’17 that is. I just read about the rhubarb leaves being toxic because of oxalic acid. All true but…. I am a honey bee guardian wh does not use chemicals or any other interference with the hives in my garden… I have heard that when there is an infestation of varroa mites in a hive, placing rhubarb leaves on top of the frames that hold the comb can help control the infestation…. I thought this trick might be of use to other readers…..

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