LONDON, Ont. - Rhubarb may be one of the few foods left with the distinction of maintaining its popularity mostly thanks to home gardeners.
Fresh rhubarb is not always easy to find in large grocery stores and that may be because less than 200 hectares (500 acres) of rhubarb was grown commercially in all of Canada last year, according to Statistics Canada. Yet rhubarb patches thrive in home gardens from coast to coast, satisfying the demand for the tart stalks that can be transformed into pies and other sweet treats. Many market gardeners also grow it but in statistically insignificant quantities.
Contrary to the tomato, a fruit that is usually treated as a vegetable, rhubarb is horticulturally a vegetable but is used almost exclusively as a fruit. The stalks of this perennial member of the buckwheat family range in colour from crimson to speckled pink to light green. The leaves of all varieties are toxic and cannot be eaten.
"Rhubarb is a fabulous product to work with because it's so versatile," says Elspeth McLean-Wile, owner of Wile's Lake Farm Market and Baking near Bridgewater, N.S. "You just chop it up. It's easy to freeze. It has potential for drinks, soups, relishes and chutneys, as well as the sweet desserts."
Until now McLean-Wile has purchased frozen rhubarb to make baked goods sold at the market, but last year she planted her own and by next year she'll be able to harvest fresh rhubarb.
Greg Webster, owner of Webster Farms Ltd. in Cambridge, N.S., has one of the largest commercial rhubarb operations in the province, with about 7.6 hectares (19 acres). Virtually all his product is sold sliced and frozen to the pie manufacturing industry.
Because his plants are harvested by cutting off the whole plant near the base, "it puts it under a fair bit of stress so three to five years is probably the maximum" life expectancy of a plant.
"But if you put it in a home garden, it could last forever," he says.
Rhubarb should not be harvested for at least one year after it is planted, to allow it to get well established. When it is ready to harvest, home gardeners should pull the stalks, not cut them, "because then you're only getting the mature stalks and you're not reducing the photosynthesis possibility for the rest of the plant."
In the small southwestern Ontario village of Shedden — population about 300 — all things rhubarb are celebrated every June at the Rosy Rhubarb Festival. This year the June 8-10 event marks its 20th anniversary.
About 4,000 to 5,000 visitors are expected to descend on the village, billed as the Rhubarb Capital of Ontario, to sample and buy rhubarb pies, muffins and other rhubarb desserts from vendors and to treat themselves to the event's signature dish, ice cream with rhubarb sauce.
The sauce — about 450 litres (100 gallons) of it — is all made on site the weekend of the festival and is served over about 320 litres (70 gallons) of ice cream, says Keith Orchard of Shedden, who has been involved in organizing the festival since the beginning and has been chairman of the planning committee for 17 years.
In its first year, the festival went through about 136 kilograms (300 pounds) of rhubarb. This year, counting all the rhubarb products that will be sold, Orchard estimates that number will be about 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds). And every bit of it comes from the gardens of people in the area.
All the baking is done locally — no mass-produced rhubarb products are allowed — and must be rhubarb-oriented. There will be about four booths selling the rhubarb goods, three with other types of foods and more than 50 vendors selling crafts and other types of products.
Orchard says about 1,500 pies will be sold at the festival. Last year's price was $9 each.
"We have one woman who makes 550 pies and on top of that she has muffins and tarts and stuff like that."
The festival was started as a way to raise money for a new community centre, which opened in 1998, and all the money raised is still used for community improvement projects. It is run strictly by volunteers and it takes about 160 of them, working two-hour shifts, to make the weekend go smoothly.
And lest you underestimate the value and popularity of rhubarb, the winning pie from last year's baking contest was auctioned off for $250.
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.