Perennial Pals

Read how Heirloom Gardener’s editor-in-chief learned to love perennial crops when his family chose to grow one particular type of rhubarb.

Chard

Rhubarb stalks are used in both sweet and savory dishes, but the leaves are poisonous.

Photo by Fotolia/daseaford

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My first garden experiences took place in a fairly harsh Zone 2 environment with about 90 frost-free days annually. Cold-hardy fare and storage crops took center stage on my family’s table; however, to me, there was something so dependable — almost magical — about perennial crops, and I learned to enjoy their relatively short seasons. I developed a special affinity for perennial rhubarb. My family grew only ‘Canada Red’ because it had the reddest stalks, appeared to thrive in North Dakota, didn’t bolt, and had exceptional flavor. Fascinated as I was by the bright-pink, egg-shaped crown from which the red stalks seemed to explode, it was the anticipation of sauces, pies, and syrup that drove my ardor. The dream of skipping chores on a spring morning to sneak a bowl of sugar from the pantry, break off a tender rhubarb stalk (which hopefully my mother wouldn’t miss), and then hide in the arched chambers beneath the heady-scented lilac copse was almost more than I could bear.

Before I knew it, those crisp spring days turned to cold autumn evenings, and dad would grouse a little about that rogue of a horseradish clump invading the frost-bitten garden. He always threatened to yank it out, but, like me, he loved its tenacity and its pungent spice, so it remained. Soon enough the bitter wind cut like a headsman’s sword, and darkness overpowered light. Once again I’d start to dream about hiding out under the lilacs with my sweet rhubarb prize.

This year, I’ve sworn to do a better job finding a rhubarb cultivar that will thrive here in Kansas — my ‘Canada Red’ barely hangs on.

If you have any perennial fruits, vegetables, or flowers that you’ve carried in your heart from good days long gone, I would love to hear about them. Please send your story and any related photos to HWill@HeirloomGardener.com — they just might wind up in a future issue of the magazine.