This technique is well-known across the pond, but may be less familiar to gardeners in the US. Learn what forcing rhubarb means, and how it changes one of our favorite spring crops.
Rhubarb is usually known for its extremely sour flavor that’s best tempered with a generous amount of sugar and other fruits to produce sweet stalks (check out these recipes for some inspo). Want to learn how to grow rhubarb that doesn’t need sugar at all? Forcing rhubarb is the growing technique that makes this happen, and it also gives growers an early crop.
What Is Forced Rhubarb?
Have you ever brought a plant bulb from a cold garage to grow it inside, like a daffodil or crocus? That technique is known as forcing. A dormant plant is exposed to cold or even frost, and then brought to an ideal climate to start growing. With rhubarb, forcing goes one step further by also blocking all light from the plant in order to get rapid growth.
Why Should You Grow Rhubarb in the Dark?
Growing rhubarb in the dark, and we mean total darkness, accomplishes two things. First, the rhubarb stalks grow faster than usual as the plant searches for light to make chlorophyll. Second, the sweet glucose produced in the rhubarb that would normally be used to grow the plant’s huge leaves is instead stored in the stalks. This means that the stalks of forced rhubarb are sweeter instead of sour.
During forcing, the rhubarb plants will be on the alert for even the tiniest bit of sunlight so that it can begin its natural growing process. Even the beam from a flashlight would be enough to break the forcing! For this reason, rhubarb farmers have been known to pick forced rhubarb by candlelight so as not to disrupt the plants.
Where Is Forced Rhubarb Grown?
Growing rhubarb this way has a long history in England, where the climate much of the year is ideal for the plant. At one time, England produced enough rhubarb to meet the demand across Europe and abroad. The Yorkshire Rhubarb Triangle is a nine square-mile area that’s famous for its early, forced rhubarb. The plants are grown in long forcing sheds and harvested by hand by candlelight.
Choose young rhubarb plants, about one or two years old. In early spring, when a few leaves have just started to emerge from the ground, cover the plant with a large pot. You can even look for special rhubarb forcers: large, terra cotta, bell-shaped containers specially made for the task. Block any holes or gaps in the pot so that no light can get in, and place a layer of straw around the outside of the pot to insulate it. Allow the plant to grow in darkness for about eight weeks before harvesting. After harvesting, the forced plants should be given a season or two to recover before forcing again.
I found this strawberry rhubarb crisp recipe on a box of Quaker Oats about 20 years ago. It's quick and easier to make than pie. It's versatile, too, because you can add strawberries in spring or apples in fall. I usually pop it into the oven shortly before we sit down to eat so it's still warm for dessert! —C.E. Adams, Charlestown, New Hampshire
The rhubarb flavor in this tart balances nicely with the honey and amaretto. The mascarpone cheese makes it rich and creamy. Sometimes I'll even double the rhubarb for really sumptuous tarts. —Ellen Riley, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I remember eating this relish at my grandmother's over 50 years ago. My mother made it for years and now my daughters make it. The relish complements any meat, but I find it a must with meat loaf. —Helen Brooks, Lacombe, Alberta r
My husband and I love pie, but we can't eat a whole 9-inch pie by ourselves. So I make these easy tarts using rhubarb and raspberries picked at home. Sometimes I substitute apples, peaches or our garden blueberries for the rhubarb. —Naomi Olson Hamilton, Michigan
A "fool" is a British dessert that's usually made with custard. This is a modified, quicker version I created. My kids love it because it doesn't taste like rhubarb—so I guess it's well named! —Cheryl Miller, Fort Collins, Colorado
I prepare this easy spring dessert quite often when fresh rhubarb is abundant. I make this rhubarb cake with cake mix and take it to church potlucks. People actually line up for a piece. —Bonnie Krogman, Thompson Falls, Montana
I got this recipe from my niece's son. Since we live in apple country, we have enjoyed apple fritters for many years. This rhubarb treat is a nice change for spring when apples are few and rhubarb is plentiful. —Helen Budinock, Wolcott, New York
These cheesecake bars layer a buttery pecan shortbread crust with a rich and creamy filling and sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb jam. For larger squares, cut into nine bars instead of 16. —Amanda Scarlati, Sandy, Utah
My husband’s grandmother was an excellent cook, but she didn’t always share her secrets. Luckily, we have her rhubarb pie recipe. I added one of my favorite crusts and a never-fail meringue. —Elaine Sampson, Colesburg, Iowa
My family loves rhubarb, and this is such a fun way to enjoy it. It's nice to have in the freezer and bring out when guests drop by. Even people that aren't crazy about rhubarb enjoy it. —Cathie Beard, Philomath, Oregon
It's always fun to serve a meat or poultry dish with a twist. This tangy-sweet chutney is a wonderfully different garnish. With fine chunks of rhubarb and raisins, it has a nice consistency. It's among our favorite condiments. —Jan Paterson, Anchorage, Alaska
Springtime brings back memories of the rhubarb that grew beside my childhood home. When I found ruby red stalks in the store, I created this recipe for them. My family gives this a big thumbs up. —Laurie Hudson, Westville, Florida
This tangy sweet spread is "jam-packed" with lots of cherry flavor, plus a hint of rhubarb. My mother gives jars of it to friends during rhubarb season—it's so delicious on toast and muffins. —Faye Sampson, Radcliffe, Iowa
Slab pie is a pastry baked in a jelly-roll pan and cut into slabs like a bar cookie—or a pie bar, if you will. My grandfather was a professional baker and served pieces of slab pie to his customers back in the day. Here is my spin, featuring rhubarb and gorgeous red raspberries. —Jeanne Ambrose, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
My husband's aunt gave me this recipe, and it's become our family's favorite breakfast topping. Sometimes I'll substitute cherry pie filling (which I put through the blender) for the blueberry pie filling—it's tasty, too! —Rita Wagenmann, Grangeville, Idaho
A dollop of whipped topping adds a nice finishing touch to this satisfying crumble. Sometimes I drizzle a little flavored coffee creamer on top instead of the whipped topping. —Nancy Sousley, Lafayette, Indiana
A neighbor shared this recipe with me, and I created my own variation using garden-fresh rhubarb and strawberries. The shortbread crust and creamy sweet-tart layers went over big at a family party—not a crumb was left! —Sara Zignego, Hartford, Wisconsin
A bumper crop of rhubarb and mint from my garden inspired me to create this thirst-quenching pick-me-up. Raspberries deepen the tea's vibrant red color, making the drinks a pretty addition to your table. —Laurie Bock, Lynden, Washington
I won a blue ribbon at our local fair for these tender cookies. They're so pretty with the ruby-red filling peeking through the dough. Try making these special cookies and watch the smiles appear. —Pauline Bondy, Grand Forks, North Dakota
I’ve baked this cake every spring for many years, and my family loves it! Use your own fresh rhubarb, hit up a farmers market or find a neighbor who will trade stalks for the recipe! —Helen Breman, Mattydale, New York
My friend Dave always brought two strawberry rhubarb cakes to work to celebrate his birthday. He’d use up rhubarb growing in the yard and treat his co-workers. —Charlene Schwartz, Maple Plain, Minnesota
My grandparents grew a ton of stuff in their garden, including rhubarb and strawberries. We typically baked it into pies and cobblers, but then Mom found this recipe and it became a fresh, new favorite. —LeeAnn McCue, Charlotte, North Carolina
The usual reaction to this casserole is that it’s a nice mix of sweet and tart—and an unusual use of rhubarb! I like rhubarb, but I’m not a dessert person. I always thought pies and cobblers shouldn’t be the only ways to enjoy it. —Jeanie Castor, Decatur, Illinois
Mom's yummy cobbler is a truly wonderful finale to any meal. This family favorite is sweet and tart, chock-full of berries and rhubarb, and the thick crust is so easy to make. —Susan Emery, Everett, Washington
We recently started growing our own rhubarb, and we live in a part of Oregon where strawberries are plentiful. I created this to drizzle over ice cream and filled a crisp with the rest. —Kim Banick, Salem, Oregon
Nothing hides the tangy rhubarb in this lovely pie, which has just the right balance of sweet and tart. Serving this dessert is a nice way to celebrate the end of winter! — Ellen Benninger, Greenville, Pennsylvania
My daughter makes this marmalade every spring when rhubarb's abundant. Our family enjoys her gift…a refreshing departure in flavor from all the berry jams and jellies. —Leo Nerbonne, Delta Juction, Alaska
An attractive dessert, this crisp is also a popular breakfast dish at our house, served with a glass of milk rather than topped with ice cream. Because it calls for lots of rhubarb, it's a great use for the bounty you harvest. —Rachael Vandendool, Barry's Bay, Ontario
I rely on a cake mix to speed the prep for this moist streusel-topped dessert that pairs tart rhubarb with sweet strawberries. It's great all by itself, but feel free to add some frosting or ice cream. —Jackie Heyer, Cushing, Iowa
I received this recipe from a friend about 15 years ago. It's a nice surprise for ketchup lovers, and so easy to prepare. The spicy flavor makes this one of the tastiest ketchups I've ever had! —Faith McLillian, Rawdon, Quebec
I came up with this recipe after hearing a friend fondly recall his grandmother's rhubarb dumplings. My son especially likes rhubarb, and this old-fashioned dessert lets those special stalks star.
-Beverly Shebs, Pinehurst, North Carolina
I like to take treats to my co-workers at the nursery/gift shop where I work. When rhubarb season arrives, I make this rich, sweet baklava so I can share the fruits of my garden. —Sue Bolsinger, Anchorage, Alaska
While growing up on a farm, I often ate rhubarb, so it's natural for me to use it in a pie. I prefer to use lard for the flaky pie crust and thin, red rhubarb stalks for the filling. These two little secrets helped this strawberry rhubarb pie recipe win top honors at the 2013 Iowa State Fair. —Marianne Carlson, Jefferson, Iowa
When I met my English husband and served him just the crumble, he said it was fantastic but really needed a custard sauce over it. We found a terrific sauce recipe from England, and now the pair is perfect together. I wouldn't serve it any other way. —Amy Freeman, Cave Creek, Arizona
I cook in a coffee shop, so I'm always looking for new and unique pies to serve my customers. The combination of blueberries and rhubarb in this recipe caught my eye and it was an instant best-seller. —Karen Dougherty, Freeport, Illinois
Every spring when her rhubarb was ready, my mother-in-law chopped it up for this moist cake. If your rhubarb is too tart for the sauce, just add in some strawberries. —Rena McCalment, Sharpsville, Indiana
My Grandma Dot used to make rhubarb compote and always had some in the freezer when I came to visit. This breakfast is a tribute to her. No two stalks of rhubarb are exactly alike, so make sure to taste the compote before you chill it. It should be tart, but sometimes it needs a little extra sugar. —Michael Hoffman, Brooklyn, New York
This tart and tangy fruit sauce is excellent over pound cake or ice cream. I have served this topping many times and have gotten rave reviews from friends and family. —Judith Wasman, Harkers Island, North Carolina
Spinach salad is excellent with this tangy topping, which really perks it up. A friend shared a similar salad dressing recipe with me and I modified it a bit. The rhubarb adds rosy color and mouthwatering flavor.—Twila Mitchell, Lindsborg, Kansas
At a retreat in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, I sampled a marmalade combining rhubarb and raisins. I loved it so much that I went home and tried to duplicate it. I added the strawberries to make the marmalade even sweeter. —Carmen Tuck, Airdrie, Alberta
Discovering restaurants, tasting bakery treats, finding inspiration in new flavors and regional specialties—no wonder Nancy loves being a Taste of Home Community Cook and a food and travel writer. She and her family live in Vermont and enjoy all things food, as well as the beautiful outdoors, game nights, Avengers movies and plenty of maple syrup. Find Nancy’s writing and recipes at her website: Hungry Enough To Eat Six.