Making the most of rhubarb

When I was young, rhubarb grew practically wild in our yard.

We had a dedicated patch close to the house and because it was not part of my parents’ harvest, my brother and I would break off the stalks as soon as they turned red and would chew on them like they were candy canes.

This was not the case with the husband, so while I grew up loving the tart crunchiness of raw rhubarb, he wasn’t a fan. That didn’t stop me from growing my own rhubarb patches in our yard over the years. Nor did it stop me from making rhubarb crumble, rhubarb compote and strawberry-rhubarb jam. Since our kids generally followed their dad’s more particular food choices, I was the only one in the family eating rhubarb, and I didn’t care.

If you aren’t familiar with Rheum rhabarbarum, it is a cool season vegetable. Like asparagus, it is one of the few perennial vegetables we have around here. But just as we don’t treat tomatoes like fruit, we don’t treat rhubarb like vegetables, preferring instead to load it with sugar and eat it prepared as a dessert.

Rhubarb grows great here, mainly because the plant requires winter temperatures below 40 degrees to break dormancy. It grows best when summer temperatures are below 75 degrees and will produce all summer until the first heavy frost kills the leaves.

We don’t eat rhubarb leaves, of course. The leaves contain large amounts of oxalic acid, which can be toxic. There are plenty of other vegetables that also contain oxalic acid, such as spinach, kale, beets, peppers and more, but the amounts are not as concentrated as in rhubarb leaves.

The leaves, instead, can be grown for a couple other purposes. One of these is just for their size. Rhubarb leaves can be enormous and if you love large, tropical looking leaves in your garden, rhubarb will come through for you. The second use for rhubarb leaves is my favorite; using them as molds for bird feeders, bird baths or just garden art.

Here’s how you do it:

With regular play sand, form it into a hill. The hill will form the saucer for your bird bath or feeder.

Cover the hill with plastic wrap.

Pick out a nice rhubarb leaf. If you want a big dish, choose a big leaf. If you want something for the table top, choose smaller. You can make it any size you want. Place your leaf on top of plastic wrap, keeping the highest part of the mound in the center of the leaf. With a soft brush, paint a thin coat of mineral oil over the leaf to make it easier to remove from the cement.

There are many recipes for the mixture that becomes the dish. I followed the advice from an old issue of Garden Gate magazine and used Vinyl Patch by Quickcrete. When I couldn’t find that product, I used portland cement. Mix it in a five-gallon bucket and add just enough water that the mixture is the consistency of toothpaste. Avoid making it too soupy.

This is where you would add the concrete coloring, if you prefer, or you can paint the dish to your liking once it cures.

Form the concrete over the leaf, making sure it’s a little thicker over the center vein. It’s easy to make this section too thin and that’s the first place your dish will break if it isn’t strong enough. Some have gone as far as to put a piece of chicken wire on top of the cement-covered leaf and then adding a second coat of cement for reinforcement, but I haven’t tried that method.

Let the concrete dry for 48 hours. If it is a particularly hot day and your project is in the sun, avoid allowing it dry too quickly by occasionally spraying it with water.

Carefully turn the dried dish over being careful not to chip off the edges or break it in half where that large vein runs through the center. This is the fragile section I mentioned earlier.

Peel off the plastic wrap and allow the dish to cure for three weeks before using it.