Give rhubarb an inch, and the plant's mysterious, magenta stalks and broad, poisonous leaves may soon take over.

Give rhubarb an inch, and the plant's mysterious, magenta stalks and broad, poisonous leaves may soon take over.

"We have divided it many times," says Soni Hale, a 69-year-old Central Point resident who has maintained a rhubarb patch for about 45 years.

A few years ago, Hale set out two rhubarb plants in a 4-by-8-foot, raised bed. She now has eight plants and can hardly thin them fast enough during rhubarb's short growing season. Hale invariably gives some away every summer.

"My grandmother grew it ... and we ate rhubarb a lot growing up," Hale says.

Her grandmother's rhubarb repertoire, however, boiled down to a single sauce. Hale takes rhubarb a step further and makes pie, a classic use that has earned rhubarb the nickname "pie plant."

"It's very good for you," Hale says.

Some 200 certified-organic rhubarb plants populate Mike and Angelika Curtis' Eagle Point strawberry farm. Despite an ample culinary supply, Angelika Curtis, 45, prepares a single rhubarb dish — her German grandmother's raspberry-rhubarb dessert.

"It makes like a stiff pudding that's red," Curtis says. "I don't think I would have ever eaten rhubarb except for that."

Blame rhubarb's tough exterior and tart disposition, which makes it difficult to eat raw. It was consumed as medicine for centuries in Asia. As a food, rhubarb demands the addition of sugar to tame its bite and the application of heat to soften its rigid fibers.

Yet rhubarb's prolific nature likely led to its popularity in the United States — beginning in the early 1900s — as the base for preserves, jams and chutneys. These days, rhubarb is more easily put up by simply slicing and freezing, Curtis says. Unlike most vegetables, rhubarb doesn't need to be blanched first, she adds.

A cousin of celery, rhubarb produces bigger and longer stalks that grow individually, as opposed to celery's clusters. Rhubarb can sport colors from green to rosy red. When buying rhubarb, choose firm, unblemished stalks. If fresh, rhubarb can be refrigerated in an open plastic or paper bag for three to five days.

Available for the next several weeks, the U.S. supply of field-grown rhubarb comes almost exclusively from Oregon and Washington. Unlike almost every other fruit or vegetable, rhubarb does best where it gets cold, making it a Pacific Northwest specialty. The plant likes a wet climate and needs occasional winter temperatures below 40 degrees to be reliably productive on a commercial scale.

Local rhubarb can be purchased at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, for $2.50 per pound from Bigham Farms or $3 per pound from Wild Bee Honey Farm.

"It just started, and strawberries are starting to come on, too. So those two go together," says Doug Bigham. "That's the idea."

Indeed, the Curtises grow rhubarb primarily for its affinity to strawberries. They point out, however, that customers need to capitalize on the combination when the two crops align.

"There's only a two- or three-week window when you can have both," Angelika Curtis says.

Besides strawberries, rhubarb pairs well with apples, raspberries, cherries, orange and ginger. Even with a big helping of sugar, rhubarb retains its tart edge, making a tangy sauce that complements duck and game.

Cooking to a silky texture in fewer than 10 minutes, rhubarb becomes fragile in this softened state. Shake the pan rather than stirring rhubarb to avoid shredding the fibers. When cooked, green rhubarb stalks tend to become orange or neutral while pink or red stalks retain a rosy hue.

Before bringing rhubarb into the kitchen, always remove its leaves, which contain toxic oxalic acid. Then try rhubarb in the following recipes.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Washington Post contributed to this story.