Don’t Bother Growing Rhubarb in Southern California

Question from Bob:
I am in zone 9B by the USDA Zone map. Rhubarb requires the best results in Zones 3-8. Are you aware of a good root stock the will flourish here in So. Calif?

I have heard of placing ice cubes over the top of the plant locations at night to give them that additional chill, is there any sound meaning to this.

Thank you for your help in this matter.

Answer from Pat:
To put it flatly, do not advocate growing rhubarb in the coastal zones of Southern California, and I do not know any varieties especially adapted to growing here. Rhubarb is best adapted to a cold-winter climate with snowy winters, and there’s no use quibbling about it. In Southern California rhubarb plants don’t go properly dormant and in summer they usually die from root rot.

If you live in an interior zone where winter frosts are a yearly occurrence, (daytime temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit), then you may be able to grow rhubarb and harvest palatable stems in the cool weather of spring and fall. (The pink early-spring growth and red fall stems are always best.) People who live and garden in the mountainous zones of Southern California can usually grow pretty good rhubarb.

There is an additional and more serious reason I am not enthusiastic about growing rhubarb here, and that is that since the plants never go properly dormant, their stems stay too green.

In my opinion, green rhubarb stems are unhealthy to ingest due to the high percentage of oxalic acid they contain. Most gardeners are aware that the green leaves of rhubarb are a deadly poison and have killed people who eat them. (During the Second World War there were several sad occasions when hungry people in England who did not know better were killed from eating cooked the leaves of rhubarb.)That should give us a clue that though green rhubarb stems may not kill us they are not good for us. People with a tendency to kidney stones should never eat rhubarb anyway and most likely they should not eat asparagus either since these two vegetables can lead to a serious attack of kidney stones when ingested by people who have that tendency.

There are so many good things we can grow so easily in California that they can’t grow back East, like artichokes for example, and we are so lucky to be able to grow vegetables year-round, why not concentrate on plants that are well adapted here? I’m happy for those folks who put up with snowy winters, that at least they have a few things to crow about. Tell you what: Next time those lovely pink rhubarb stems are for sale in spring, why not splurge and buy a bunch? Bake up a great pie or boil a batch of yummy jam. Devour it with pleasure and be glad you didn’t have to shovel snow all winter!

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  1. a informative good post by the author hope to come back more really soon.

  2. I don’t know what your winters are like, but my mother always had pretty good success with rhubarb in zone 9b (sunset 15)up here in Northern California. The stems get red in late spring, and they taste great with home grown strawberries!

  3. We grow rhubarb at home although we live a few miles from Disneyland, Anaheim in USDA zone 10.

    We’ve been growing and eating rhubarb for over 30 years in my yard with no known health problems from so doing although the petioles tend more towards green than red in color.

    In late April,1968 I visited Knott’s Berry Farm, near Disneyland,and saw a large field containing several acres of rhubarb growing next to the building housing their replica of the ‘cracked liberty bell’ of independence. I suppose they were using it for their pies and other cooked ‘goodies’.

    Victoria is the variety I see most often at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and OSH. It typically has greenish petioles with streaks of red.

    My rhubarb plants did not survive over the winter when I grew them in plastic containers so I picked pounds of petioles during the spring and summer after I planted them.

    I grow 9 plants, two-each of four varieties in the ground as well as one from ‘glaskins’ variety seed (obtained from Thompson & Morgan), with spacings about 5 feet between plants. I divided a plant last week and now have eleven plants so will be putting the two extra plants in spaces between existing plants.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to carefully write up this information regarding growing rhubarb in Southern California and specifically in Anaheim and environs, since it will be helpful to other people. Many years ago I was familiar with agricultural fields in Anaheim where there was an almost constant cooling wind in summer. I wonder if you live in that area. Perhaps Anaheim has a special climate, with adequate winter cold but also cooler summers and well-drained soils so the plants don’t rot in summer as they are so often prone to do.

      My experience has been that it is difficult to grow good rhubarb in Southern California since it often rots in summer and it does not get cold enough in winter to grow pink stalks. Green stalks are full of oxalic acid. This can can create kidney stones in people with the tendency to kidney stones but since your family obviously doesn’t have this problem this is not a matter to concern you.

      I always try to make it clear that my opinion about growing rhubarb is my own. No one needs to agree with me about rhubarb. It is just my opinion and though I clearly state it, I don’t push my opinion on anyone. My strong opinion on this subject is based on my own experience and that of many other gardeners whom I know but it differs from yours. You are certainly a great rhubarb lover. You have success growing it and I say more power to you to grow plenty of it to enjoy. I like it too but maybe only eat it once a year, if that. I am sure this is partly why I am not upset that it doesn’t grow well in Sunset Zone 24 where I live. (By the way, you say you live in Zone 10 and by this you must mean you live in USDA Zone 10. If we discuss Sunset Zones, you might be in Sunset Zone 22 or 23.)

      I think I should admit that part of my prejudice against growing rhubarb might be based on the fact that rhubarb needs to be mixed with a lot of sugar either during or after cooking in order for it to be palatable. I have eaten some very delicious rhubarb pies in my life but they are not good for me. Not because of kidney stones. That’s not a problem. But because I gain weight very easily and therefore eat mighty little sugar.

      I hold to the belief that too much purified cane or beet sugar is bad for one’s health and a great contributor to overweight and other physical ills. This has nothing to do with rhubarb as a garden crop, but I realize it may contribute to my lack of enthusiasm for rhubarb as an organic gardener. I much prefer crops that taste great just as they are without the necessity of adding something else, especially sugar, to make them edible.

      As you know I take the view that rhubarb is not a good crop to grow here, but if people find ways to grow it and it doesn’t make them sick then it’s fine. It’s up to them. Some people are allergic to fava beans too but I nonetheless I strongly promote the growing of fava beans for anyone who is not allergic to them.

      Once again many thanks for taking the time to write to me and share your good experiences with rhubarb and to share your memories of fields of rhubarb at Knotts Berry Farm. I bet I haven’t been to Knott’s Berry Farm since 1968 either! It’s interesting to me that you almost remember the exact date, (perhaps due to a High School trip?)

  4. Pat, I think you’re mistaken about green stalks being toxic or bad to eat. Other sources I can find say that the color of the stalks is not directly related to acid content. Different varieties may range from green to red even when ripe and ready to be eaten.

    • I highly appreciate your comment and I readily admit that you are probably right about the green stalks not differing in acid content from the pink ones. I am most likely wrong in my opinion, and I will try to change my thinking in that regard. The vegetable Rhubarb (Rheum) has been adjudicated to be a fruit in the USA (though it is not a fruit) and consists of various species of the rheum plant that originated in Tibet and China and has been used as a medicine for over 2,000 years, especially as a laxative. The root is also used as a dye. Since the 18th century it became popular as a food in Europe and England, because during the 18th century refined sugar became widely available in Europe. Rhubarb was at the height of popularity as a desert during the Second World War because of the ease of cultivation and enough beet sugar was available in England and northern Europe for sweetening it. Since rhubarb contains oxalic acid and several other sour chemicals, cooked rhubarb is sour and unpalatable without the addition of a large quantity of sugar. When discussing rhubarb (Reum), I always say “it is my opinion” that it is not easy to grow good rhubarb in a mild-winter climate. (That part is not opinion, but fact.) In mild-winter climates rhubarb cannot go into complete dormancy and it often rots in the heat of summer. The best rhubarb comes from northern states of the USA and northern sections of England where it is grown in greenhouses. Strawberry rhubarb which consists of the forced young stems that are pink is considered the best and is usually greenhouse grown where light and temperature can be controlled. Like you, I have read that pink rhubarb is not healthier than green rhubarb and this is probably scientific truth but I still prefer the pink type.

      An opinion is different from truth or factual information. In gardening there are sometimes different opinions since there are many variances. I like pink rhubarb. I seldom eat it, however, since it requires the addition of a great deal of sugar and in my opinion refined white sugar is an unhealthy food and puts on weight quicker than anything else. My strong prejudice against white sugar may partially explain my prejudice against greenish rhubarb. However, on more than one occasion I have eaten cooked greenish rhubarb and when I was a child in England I picked and tasted some raw greenish rhubarb before it was ripe and it didn’t kill me. (Children are often attracted to raw plants containing oxalic acid.) Despite these experiences I retained the opinion that it’s not good for one’s health and may cause kidney stones, though it did not cause them in me since I did not inherit the tendency to have them.

      Usually I’m strictly scientific, but unfortunately regarding rhubarb, my personal experiences with rhubarb and tragic deaths in England resulting from eating rhubarb leaves during the Second World War influenced my attitude. Though the petioles or stems of rhubarb are okay to eat, the leaves of rhubarb are toxic, and this is not opinion, it is fact. During the Second World War several people died from eating the green tops of rhubarb that had been cooked as a vegetable like spinach. Hearing of these tragic events irrevocably influenced my thinking. Also, my mother-in-law suffered terribly from kidney stones but couldn’t resist eating rhubarb a couple of times a year. Due to her sensitivity to oxalic acid she suffered several very painful attacks of kidney stones that landed her in the hospital.

      It’s also a fact that it’s difficult to raise top-grade rhubarb in mild zones of Southern California because rhubarb needs a cold winter or at least some winter chill in order to go dormant in winter. Rhubarb is native to areas of the world, like interior China and valleys in Tibet, that have far greater temperature extremes than coastal California. During a cold winter all the stems of rhubarb die down and then in spring the roots send up a lot of fresh tender new pink stems. Frost-free coastal zones of California do not have cold enough winter temperatures to make the plant go dormant and thus it often rots and dies in summer. If you live in the cooler areas of the mountains of Southern California it will grow fine, but if you live in the hot interior your rhubarb will be sent into dormancy in winter but then in summer the roots often rot due to extreme heat.

      The statements in the above paragraph are based on 55 years of my own experience and that of local gardeners who shared their stories with me. If there are successful rhubarb growers in Southern California it seems that they live in certain specific areas where the soil and temperatures are just right for rhubarb. Perhaps you, George, live in such a place. For example, gardeners in certain parts of Anaheim have told me they can grow good rhubarb and these areas are where rhubarb was at one time grown commercially. This is because it is cold enough in winter to force the plants into dormancy and yet a cooling breeze in summer keeps the plants from rotting because the temperature just never gets that hot. I once met a gardener who lived in a hollow near Rancho Santa Fe that froze every winter and was cool all summer. He raised not great but nonetheless good rhubarb. I also once saw a truck farm where wooden frames with burlap nailed on them were set over the plants in mid-summer to keep them cooler at mid-day. This was many years ago. Some of these old-timey tricks might still be tried by gardeners today, so I pass this along to the rhubarb-loving gardeners among us. If one lives in an area where the plants go into complete dormancy, mulching the roots in fall and then covering the plants in winter with tall upside-down flower pots might help force pink stems to grow up inside the pots and these pink stems though perhaps not healthier, as you point out, would be nonetheless be aesthetically superior to the coarser green ones.

      • I live in the Inland Empire of SoCal, Claremont. My rheubarb is in its 4th bearing season. I grows 4 ft tall and one plant is 6 ft in diameter. I harvest as early as May and as late as Nov 15th. I harvest every three weeks and have harvested in excess of 100 leaf petioles each season. My soil is poor so I depend on fertilizer 5-10-10 and compost to keep the plant healthy. I bought my plant from Lowes. Don

        • Some people have great success growing rhubarb. One key to success is winter chill which sends the plant into dormancy. In the Inland Empire you have enough winter chill. If the roots don’t rot in summer that means you have well-drained soil which I know you do because I know Claremont and it has some of the finest soil in Southern California. Good for you! Whatever you are doing, you are doing it right! Claremont, California has superior soil. Old agricultural and it’s decomposed granite, very productive, high in phosphorus and potassium and well drained. All you need to add is nitrogen. You can even use it in pots, which is the only garden soil of which that is true. I went to Scripps College and taught there early in my marriage while we lived in Claremont on Indian Hill Blvd. for two years. My garden flourished there and the closeness to Mt Baldy means there are even frosts in winter. Bulbs and roses grew beautifully. Thanks for your comment.

        • What is the name of the variety of rhubarb you have? thanks.

  5. Katarina Eriksson

    I live less than a half-a-mile from the coast in Santa Monica, (Sunset zone 24) and I grow an unknown named, heirloom red stem rhubarb in a community garden. The plants are growing great, even without going dormant in winter. Where I help them out by snapping off the stalks all the way around the plants, leaving just one or two new leaves, then I mulch my sandy soil and let them be. Freezing the chopped harvest. Our nights ARE cold enough here (we don’t get frost normally). They grow very large every year some leaves are so big they can be shirts or over sized hats, that I use the leaves as compost.
    As to the health question, I find that they can be eaten raw as a garden snack, on a limited bases, and I have cooked them with agave syrup and/or stevia with success, they are much better than process sugar, (I agree with you that sugar makes one want more sugar and puts on the extra pounds) Today I had rhubarb ice cream, with chocolate mint, very nice. So, Pat, please don’t discourage people from growing this great perennial, easy to grow plant.

    • Thank you for straightening me out regarding rhubarb. I will from now on make it clear that I don’t want to discourage anyone from growing a plant that might be a source of fun and delicious eating for them. But I wonder where you got the heirloom plant that makes good, pink stalks in your Zone 24 climate? I love good rhubarb too but the sugar is a very negative factor for me personally. Sugar makes me sleepy. I really hate the fact that companies put so much of it into breakfast cereals. It’s so bad for children. I have found only two cold cereals without it: Shredded wheat and Kashi puffed grains. I don’t much like sugar except in chocolate and use so little refined sugar that one pound lasts for several years and I keep it in the refrigerator. To further explain my peculiar ideas I do not like any sugar substitutes, even stevia. Agave syrup is okay. I have some, but I don’t find it very sweet. By the way, back to rhubarb: Did you know it thrives on manure?

    • Do you know where I could find some of that heirloom rhubard?

      • Sorry I do not know the answer to your question. Additionally, I have not heard of an heirloom rhubarb adapted to
        Southern California though perhaps there is one, but as I say, if so I have not heard of it and have no idea where your could get it.

      • I love homemade ice-cream thuogh have to admit that I do love my ice-cream maker. I made a similar flavour last year but added some crunched up ginger nuts too. It was so good I’d totally forgotten about it until now and will have to make it again soon. Thanks for the reminder!

        • hubarb is a popular subject and perhaps someone mentioned rhubarb ice cream. Never tried it but maybe it’s good. Ginger nuts or ginger snaps sound like a worthy addition.

  6. Hi Pat –
    I’ve had abysmal success rate in raising rhubarb here in Riverside, CA. The only variety I have found available here is Victoria, and it simply fries in the hot weather, shade or no shade.
    While the more persistent of your readers are certainly free to keep trying, I have decided to back off and simply snatch it up at the stands when it is available, to freeze or to cook immediately. It may be ecologically wiser in the long run to simply accept that some things grow in our own area, and some things don’t. So while I am jealous of northern rhubarb, I get melons and they don’t!
    My Best,

    P.S. I hope you’ve given up on commercial breakfast cereals altogether by now. Zero nutritional value, too expensive, and they don’t even fill you up. I make granola here instead, playing with different dried fruit combinations for variety. If you want to invest a little to start or play with ingredients, you can do that. Try this:

    4c rolled oats
    1c bran flakes
    1/2c corn meal
    1/4c wheat germ
    1/3c almonds (slivered, halved; your preference)
    1/4c sunflower seeds
    1/2c pecans or walnuts
    1/2c coconut
    1/4c corn oil
    1/4-1/2c honey (depending on your sweetness preference)
    1c or so of chopped dried fruit

    Mix it all up, spread it on a cookie sheet, bake at 325F for 30 mins. Check halfway through to mix and avoid overbrowning the edges. I add the fruit after baking so it will stay tender.

    Have fun, and good eating!

    • Thanks so much for your comment and for the super granola recipe! I am strongly in favor of a healthy breakfast and start mine with fresh squeezed orange juice from organic oranges every day.

    • Well if we can’t grow it in Riverside, CA….(“snatch it up at the stands”)…where are these stands? I have checked with Stater Bros, Vons, Walmart and Albertsons and none of them stock (or can get) fresh rhubarb.

  7. Hi Pat,
    I bought an abandoned house in Cardiff with a rhubarb plant. It is now large, red stemmed and thriving 3 years later.

    • Great news about your rhubarb. You have a good plant growing in the right climate for the particular variety you have. Sounds as if you have a winner. I often hear both sides of this question. Folks who have success and others who don’t. I suggest you put manure over the roots of your plant every fall.

  8. Katarina Eriksson

    Hello again, I am saving seed from my heirloom rhubarb and giving them to the “Seed Library of Los Angeles” SLOLA, based at The Learning garden in Venice High School’s edible garden. If you want to join a lifetime membership is currently $10. Good luck to everyone who loves rhubarb and grows it.

    • Is it possible to get some of your heirloom seeds for my garden in Hollywood?

      • I believe you are referring to the old variety of rhubarb called ‘Victoria’, which dates from 1837 and was named in honor of Queen Victoria. Roots or “Crowns” of this variety (Rheum rhabarbarum ‘Victoria’) can be purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Burpee’s. I don’t know where you can purchase seeds.

  9. Rhubarbis Maximus

    As my family has been growing Rhubarb in the foothills of San Diego for Two generations,maybe we do have the new strain of rhubarb. We harvest Rhubarb 365 days a year, rain permitting.Its true that late season rhubarb is a little greener but it still tastes like rhubarb.We sell our product exclusively to our produce distributor in San Diego who delivers to over 400 restaurants in So-Cal. The Chefs Love It.

    • I just read your response to “Don’t Bother Growing Rhubarb in Southern California”
      I have just ordered 3 root stock to try and grow in my garden on Catalina Island.Can you offer any advice to help me succeed.Full sun? Fertilizer? Dampness?
      Iwas raissed in California and my mothers faorite pie was Rhubarb pie it must have been grown in California.
      Looking forward to your response

      • Rhubarbus Maximus

        Hi Bob. Rhubarbus Maximus Here. Just read that you live on catalina. You have the most perfect climate for Rhubarb. Dig a 5 gallon sized hole mix 1 bag miracle grow with 1 bag equal size screened steer manure. That is enuff for what you need.Good Drainage a must. 4 to 8 hours of sun per day. Water good every 2 or 3 days and watch em go crazy. we grow the Victoria variety. Good Luck My Brother,Aloha

    • my grandma grew delicious red rhubarb in yorbalinda, ca. grandma watered with drip irrigation 6″ from root. ground looked hard and dry all the time. since you have old plants, and grandma grew her plants 60 years ago, would you consider selling 2 young plants?

      • Many folks tell me they have good fortune growing rhubarb here. I am glad they enjoy it. As I have stated I don’t grow it in my garden. Nor do I eat it.

  10. My grandmother successfully grew rhubarb on the family farm in Sam Marcos, (southern) California. She had about six plants on the West side of the garage that seemed to be always producing luscious stalks. I now grow Victoria (a greener variety) in my garden in Huntington Beach.

  11. My parents grew Rhubarb in Covina, Calif. and Yucaipa, Calif. I’ve grown Rhubarb in Glen Avon, Calif., San Jacinto Calif., Yucaipa, Calif., and Phelan, Calif. The kind of Rhubarb I Have is Canadian Rhubarb. On the directions it said to plant full Sun. I bought it at Home
    DePot in Hemet, Calif.

  12. Davilyn Eversz

    I grow all types of rhubarb in the high desert of California and they do just fine. I grow them in about 80% shade. Zone 9b by the way.

  13. Hello!

    Found this posting while looking for a good variety of rhubarb for So. Cal. I find this to be a little amusing, considering that for many many hears, Rhubarb was professionally cultivated in Southern California. Yup. Thousands of acres of rhubarb were grown here. Granted, it hates heat, will wilt, and most modern varieties are too finicky for our climate. However, if you doubt it can grow here, here’s a friendly little article from the LA Times discussing its history here.

    Smiles from Sunny So Cal!

    • Thanks for your comment and I am glad you are laughing. I know I am opinionated on the subject of rhubarb and have said so. Yes, rhubarb can be grown in Southern California and was grown commercially in coastal zones years ago, using the old furrow method, where fields that were soaked with water in trenches between mounds and rhubarb on top of the mounds so it did not rot in summer, but many home gardeners have trouble with it. I think the problems are that water is more expensive and scarce today, the good old varieties that were grown here, such as those Luther Burbank created, are difficult to find and our climate has changed more than most folks will admit.

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