EdibleAspen – Spring 2012

This graceful, versatile veggie has been tempting taste buds for centuries
By Annette Gallagher Weisman

Rhubarb. It’s an odd word. To the unfamiliar, it could be animal, vegetable or mineral—some distant exotica. A good guess might be that rhubarb is edible, perhaps from “across the Pond” where the Brits enjoy other unusual sounding foods such as Bovril, haggis, and bubble and squeak. But rhubarb is not only edible, it’s good for you, rich in calcium, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and is found locally.


Rhubarb’s Latin name, rhabarbarum, is a combination of the River Rha in Russia, where the plant grew along its banks, and the Barbarians who crossed it. For thousands of years rhubarb was cultivated in China and its dried roots used for medicinal reasons, including as a laxative.

Rhubarb was traded along the Silk Road through Central Asia to Europe, where it has been known as a food since the 17th century. Merchants such as explorer Marco Polo were interested in procuring rhubarb, a commodity at the time far more valuable than spices such as cinnamon, saffron and opium.

While botanically rhubarb is a vegetable, its use is mostly associated with desserts, often combined with sugar or strawberries to counteract its tartness. To some, rhubarb looks ravishing with its long slender legs in hues of crimson, speckled pink or light green topped by a verdant parasol of leaves. (Note: These large floppy leaves are toxic, high in oxalic acid. They can, however, be used as compost because their acidity breaks down, rendering them harmless.)

The Plant arrived in the United States from Britain in the 1820s, and in 1847 was declared a fruit, for regulatory and tariff purposes. Today it is grown in various parts of the country, predominantly in Washington, Oregon and Michigan. Rhubarb as a crop has become increasingly common in Western Colorado. A relatively easy-to-grow perennial, rhubarb grows well at altitude, is winter hardy and is resistant to drought.

There are over 60 varieties of rhubarb including the popular Victoria, Colorado Red, Turkish and Canada Red, and is harvested from late May through June. Rhubarb must be pulled, not cut. Picking off any flowers that begin to bud enables regrowth until the first frost. It’s important not to pull the stalks the first year, instead allowing the roots to develop.


Farmer Pete Mattics started growing rhubarb five years agoon his farm on High Mesa Road, in Olathe, just because “I love strawberry and rhubarb pie.” Known for his roasted fresh green chilies as well as many other vegetables, Mattics sells a small amount of rhubarb through local wholesaler Jack Reed (currently selling produce at the Aspen Emporium & Flying Circus).

Bill DeVries in Orchard Mesa, near Grand Junction, started growing rhubarb just three years ago. DeVries farms 150 acres of “just about anything that will grow here,” including German hard-necked garlic, tomatoes and squash. You’ll find rhubarb in his nearby store DeVries Market and this summer at the Aspen Saturday Market, which he helped start.

Hal Morse, DeVries’s neighbor, has also grown rhubarb for the past 10 years and sells some to DeVries and other local wholesalers as well as at the farmers’ market in Grand Junction. Now retired, Morse raises nothing but rhubarb and sold 1,000 pounds of it last year.

Mark Waltermire, who’s always cultivating new and interesting produce for CSA and on-farm sales, is now growing rhubarb at his Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss. And RendezvousOrganic Farm in Crawford sells rhubarb to The Little Nell.


The Little Nell’s executive pastry chef Danielle Riesz usesrhubarb masterfully in her signature dessert Drunken Doughnut Holes. In this dish, she creates three small miracles of divinity (the doughnut holes), each having its own exquisite accompaniment:caramel sauce, chocolate sauce and rhubarb-strawberry jam. Perfect in its tartness and sweetness combined. Chef Riesz says this jam is also ideal for pouring on French toast, English muffins, croissants or vanilla ice cream.

At Pacifica, rhubarb is used in a stellar offering of tender halibut enhanced by a cipollini onion and rhubarb sauce. Executive chef Bryan Nelson says the recipe works well with almost any mild white fish. “I love this sauce because it is a play on sweet and sour which lends itself particularly well to the sous vide preparation of the halibut.”

And for the classic strawberry-rhubarb tart, there is none better than chef Katie Lorenzen’s served at BB’s Kitchen in Aspen. Bliss. A perfect way to honor the ravishing rhubarb.

Photograph: Carole Topalian