While rhubarb is often propagated from root divisions, growing rhubarb from seed is a much more economical method. Many commercial rhubarb plants available from nursery catalogs are just seedlings grown out for a year or two.
If you’re patient, it’s easy enough to grow hundreds of rhubarb seedlings for the price of one nursery rhubarb plant.
Like many perennials, rhubarb doesn’t come true to seed. Apples are the same way, and while you can grow apples from seed, you never quite know what you’ll get.
The seeds of any given plant will produce offspring that won’t be the same as the parent, but that’s not always a bad thing. Every variety we know and love today was once a seedling, and it’s just been propagated ever since.
Unlike apples, which can be really different from their parents, rhubarb seedlings are only subtly different. For the most part, they’re quite similar, and only a true rhubarb connoisseur can really tell the difference most of the time.
Victoria Rhubarb, a type of heirloom rhubarb, is known for coming true to seed. It’s one of the most popular types of garden rhubarb in the Northeast.
Still, I was skeptical. I love my rhubarb, and I was pretty sure I’d know…until I learned one of our local commercial farms grows all their rhubarb from seed for their CSA and market sales. A friend of mine runs the farm, and she mentioned that they were going to add rhubarb to their spring CSA, and had just put in 1,000 plants.
I said, “Woah, that’s quite the investment!” Thinking they’d just dropped like $10k on rhubarb.
She answered a bit confused, “Not really, about $10 in seed.”
(Seeds are available here, by the packet, or in bulk.)
I was impressed at the cost savings, but still skeptical. I forgot all about it, until about 3 years later when I stopped by her farmer’s market booth.
Sure enough, there was a full stand of rhubarb. I had to know, so I bought some…and it was absolutely delicious.
That summer I saved my first rhubarb seed, and the following spring our rhubarb seedling empire began.
Saving Rhubarb Seed
The first step in growing rhubarb from seed is saving the seed from your existing plants (or, just buying a packet). A single rhubarb plant produces literally hundreds of seeds, and when you buy them by the packet they’re about 10 cents per seed. Still a good deal, but a much better deal if you can just save seed.
Rhubarb plants send up a flower stalk in the early spring, and most gardeners break it off so that the plant puts more energy into producing stalks. Leave a few, on your best tasting rhubarb plants.
They look like this as they’re starting to unfurl…
Give them a bit more time, and that same flower stalk will open up into a profusion of beautiful tiny white blossoms.
It’s really quite lovely, and the bees can’t get enough of them.
The blooms open in stages.
You’ll see some small green seed heads forming as the last blossoms are just opening.
It takes all summer, but by the fall, the rhubarb stalk will dry down. The dry, papery seed husks will start to catch the wind and blow away.
That’s when it’s time to break off the whole stalk and collect the rhubarb seed.
The seeds come off the stalk relatively easily, and there’s plenty of them. I got about a quart of seed from a single stalk.
The important thing here is to make sure you allow the seed to dry completely before storing it. The papery husks hold the morning dew, and they can easily mold if stored immediately.
Set the rhubarb seed out on a tray and allow it to dry for a few days before packing it away until spring.
Growing Rhubarb from Seed
When I started doing research on growing rhubarb from seed, I assumed that the seeds would require a cold stratification period to germinate. Nope.
While the crowns require a cold winter period for dormancy to recharge, the seeds can be kept at room temperature all winter before planting.
Start rhubarb seeds indoors in pots or seedling trays about 8-10 weeks before the last frost. This is a few weeks before tomatoes, but a few weeks after asparagus grown from seed.
Keep the seedlings moist, but not saturated. Rhubarb can die or be stunted from root rot in overly wet potting mix.
Rhubarb plants can handle a bit of frost, and they grow best transplanted a bit BEFORE the last spring frost. Harden plants off by taking them outdoors during the day and on warmer nights.
About 2 weeks before the last spring frost, transplant the rhubarb seedlings to a permanent bed in the garden. Be sure that it’s well amended with a lot of compost and organic matter, and mulch them to suppress weeds and help keep the soil cool.
In warmer areas, choose a location where the rhubarb plants will be in shade during the heat of the day. Rhubarb plants grow best in cooler locations, and they’re generally considered hardy from zone 2 to 6.
Growing Rhubarb as an Annual in Hot Climates
Up here in the north in zone 4 Vermont, planting rhubarb is a long-term commitment. They’re perfect for our harsh winters, and they pop out of the soil in the spring as soon as the snow melts.
The rest of my family lives in California, and my dad’s favorite thing in the world is strawberry rhubarb pie. While I can mail them rhubarb jam or strawberry rhubarb jam, it’s just not the same.
My sister wants me to express mail her some fresh rhubarb stalks so she can try out my recipe for rhubarb custard pie as a surprise for him. While I’m happy to oblige, there’s going to be something else in that package…rhubarb seed.
I recently learned that rhubarb does well, even in zone 9-10 if planted in the late fall and grown as a winter annual. My sister lives in the Mojave desert, but I’m hoping conditions will be cool enough in the winter months to support rhubarb.
According to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange,
“To grow rhubarb as an annual in the fall and winter (zones 9 and higher), start the seeds in a cool location (a bright indoor spot or a shady outdoor place) from late August to early October. Transplant into the garden when the seedlings reach about 4 inches tall. The plants will be ready for harvest in March through early May. Intense summer heat will kill the plants, so harvest all the leaves in late spring. This technique only works where winters are very mild, or if you can protect the plants from damaging frost with a cold frame or row cover.”
Does it work? I hope so, but in any case, a single plant produces enough rhubarb seed to plant a whole field, so it won’t take much for me to mail off a bit of seed.
Really enjoyed reading about growing rhubarb from seed. I always look forward to your posts.
Found you site and I am hooked. Being a fellow Vermonter it is nice to have access to cold weather zone 4 information. Than you. I look forward to reading more information.
Wonderful, so happy to have you along!
This is a good read. Thanks for the information. I have been trying to grow rhubarb here in Hawaii, on the northern most island of Kaua’i for about 4 years now. This year I have one surviving plant and it’s growing stalks! Do you have any ideas on how to care and harvest it? Thanks in advance!
My father sowed rhubarb about 55 years ago and some of it is still in the same place. It was neglected for several years but I cleared some weeds and grass from its sorrounds last week and its already looking great. The crowns are huge. Looking forward to splitting them next Autumn. He recommended puttin soot from the chimney in small amounts. I suppose because the rhubarb is a high iron fruit/veg. Not sure if that would be recommended or not?
Wood ash is often used as a fertilizer in the garden, and it’s good for most plants with just a few exceptions. It should be great for rhubarb, assuming it’s just run of the mill wood (hard or soft). Ashes from black walnut trees still contain juglone which kills plants, and likewise, don’t use ashes from pressure-treated wood and such. More information on using wood ashes here: https://practicalselfreliance.com/wood-ash-uses/
I grew up eating rhubarb dipped in sugar from my mother patch, I bought a house 3 years ago and was delighted to see a giant patch growing! I saved the seeds last year (there is a bunch, that you wern’t kidding about) Now I am wondering how do I start the seeds? Do they need to be soaked in water prior to planting?
They don’t need soaking, just plant and grow =)
Aloha from Kaua’i, Hawaii! I was wondering if you’ve come across anyone who’s grown rhubarb successfully here in Hawaii? It’s taken me about 4 years of trial and error to have one plant. This is it’s first year and, right now, I’m treating it like a baby perennial. I’m wondering if I should be harvesting as if it was an annual or continue to treat it like a perennial? Any guidance, suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Interesting, I would have thought without the chill hours that it would have just straight-up died quicker than that. If you’ve been able to treat it as a perennial for several years that’s wonderful. I just mailed Rhubarb seeds to my sister in California but I haven’t really heard back about success/failure from her, and I’ll admit I’m no expert in growing it without chill hours. My friend Kris at Attainable Sustainable is in Hawaii, and she may have tips for you on making it work there.
I’m wondering. We just got some rhubarb seeds. Do we need to wait now till next spring to start them? We live in central Ohio.
At this point in the year I’d personally wait until next spring to start them, simply because they’ll need to grow a bit and put on a good root to overwinter and it may well be too late in the season for that. Honestly though, I’ve never tried starting them this late so I can’t say for sure.
Carolyn J TRUESDALE
Where can I buy rhubarb seeds? I live in Florida. I have never seen rhubarb seed packets.
Johnny’s selected seed sells it, as does Eden Brother’s Nursery. I’ve seen it a number of other places in the past too, but just did a quick search and it seems like those are the only two offering it this year as far as I can see. Seed companies change offerings all the time, so just search “where to buy rhubarb seed” and you’ll get quite a few good sources.
I just ordered some rhubarb seed from Mary’s Heirloom Seeds — I tried rhubarb for the first time last year and LOVE it! I only have a couple of plants because at $4-$5 per pot at the garden store, it’s kind of pricey. Really glad to know that it’s not too hard to grow from seed! It’s worth a try, anyway. I think I might try to plant a big patch of it this year.
Thanks very much for your site.. so it is already mid-April ad I have rhubarb seeds.. and we are still having overnight temperatures below zero and some frosts.. I was wodering.. if I plant these to grow as small plants this year.. what do I do with them for the first winter? Just keep them as small plants in pots in my (not at all hot) greenhouse? Or plant them out about October and let them die back over winter and wait for them to grow back larger from next Spring? Im a bit confused what to do with the seedling plants for the first year that I do not expect to harvest them.. I live in the UK, cold, wet, but summer sun.. perfect for rhubarb.. Sharon
Personally, I’d plant them out in the garden in the fall to overwinter. Good luck!
Great article! If you wanted to grow these for sale/gifts – would you put seedlings into the ground for a year and then transplant to a nursery pot for transport? Or could you move the seedlings right into a nursery pot to grow for a year or two? Thank you!
You could probably plant them directly into a nursery pot depending on the temperatures. It might not do well if the soil completely freezes.