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Bob Lind, Published March 09 2014

Neighbors: Calling rhubarb ‘pie plant’ rooted in the past

How many remember when rhubarb was called “pie plant,” Phil Larson, Fargo, asked here a few weeks ago?

Quite a few, Phil.

“I always picked pie plant for my mother on a farm in Wheatland (N.D.),” Francis Smylie, 93, of Fargo, writes. “Could this be a Danish term? She was 100 percent Dane.”

May be, Francis. But here’s another note on the origin of the term:

“I remember my grandmother always called rhubarb the ‘pie plant,’ ” Annetta Nies, of Wahpeton, N.D., but who grew up near Ashley, N.D., writes, adding, “Pie plant was a common term used by the German Russian people.”

Joan Blegen, West Fargo, formerly of Kindred, N.D., says, “We always called it pie plant instead of rhubarb, until recent years.”

Norris Thompson, Fargo, says his mother called it pie plant, too. “She came from Missouri,” he says. “Whether it was a regional term or not, I don’t know.”

Well, whether you called it pie plant or rhubarb, it was a popular food.

Hannah Paulson and her husband Milton, Fargo, are big rhubarb fans. “We always had rhubarb on the farms where we grew up,” Hannah says. Hannah is from Nekoma, N.D., and Milton is from Lisbon, N.D.

“Your article about rhubarb brought many memories back,” writes Hank LaBore, Fargo.

“I lived on the outskirts of St. Paul and my dad had a huge garden including several rhubarb plants.

“We had delicious pies that Mother baked and I can still taste her famous rhubarb sauce.

“I am 94 years old,” Hank writes, “and just pronouncing the word ‘rhubarb’ makes me shiver with wonderful thoughts of my childhood.

“Thanks for bringing me those wonderful memories.”

Dolly (Larson) Tovson, Detroit Lakes, Minn., who was one of eight kids in a family in Audubon, Minn., writes, “I read about pie plant which I remember very clearly.

“My mother (bless her heart) would bake us fresh bread or rolls, usually on Saturday. We would cut the pie plant, then she would make sauce, and that was our supper. Then we could go to the ‘free’ show in Audubon – ‘free’ meaning outside and sitting on the ground. Oh what memories!”

And here’s another thought on why rhubarb was called pie plant.

“You asked how many remember pie plant? Well, I do,” George Litke, Fessenden, N.D., writes. “My dad, John Litke, used to put cow manure around his rhubarb plants in the early spring. Maybe that was another reason it was called pie plant.”

Snake in the patch

“Oh yes, pie plant!” Shirley Strutz, Oakes, N.D., writes. “I grew up in the ’30s in Oakes (N.D.) and can clearly remember my grandma, when I was about 10, telling me to ‘go pick some pie plant and I’ll fix it for dinner.’

“Next thing I’m running back to her screaming, ‘Don’t ever send me to get again; there’s a snake in the patch.’

“I grew up and learned to cook ‘rhubarb’ for my family and we all loved it! Oh, for the good old days!”

Pie plant also triggered memories of those good old days for Dorothy Teigen, Moorhead, who writes, “Pie plant was part of my early years on the farm. Many a pie or bowl of sauce or pudding was made from our delicious red pie plant.”

And, in the wake of the pie plant/rhubarb name matter, Dorothy opens up a new question for you.

“I have another strange name for a familiar plant. Maybe someone will remember it being used,” she writes.

“My grandmother had a big patch of what she called ‘spare grass.’ It was allowed to grow like a fern and picked to be used for floral bouquets.

“Guess what? It was asparagus!

“No one knew what it was. I didn’t until I was grown and away from home.”

Rogna “Ronnie” Hewitt, of the Eventide Living Center, Moorhead, says these pie plant stories bring her back to the Dirty Thirties when she was growing up in York, N.D., and hearing her mother “in her garden hat and apron tied around the middle announcing she was going to the garden to pick pie plant, and would then bake a couple of pies for supper.

“It was a popular fruit because it was inexpensive, easy to grow and required little care,” Ronnie notes.

“Pie plant stalks were used mainly for pies or for sauce as dessert with a cookie – it took lots of sugar.

“Jams were also made of pie plant. Maybe some pineapple or peach was added, if you could afford it! Money was scarce at that time.

“Suddenly, the pie plant became rhubarb, a more dignified name,” Ronnie says.

Ronnie, by the way, is 96, “and that’s a lot of living,” she says.

Sure is, Ronnie.

Now, back to Dorothy Teigen, who urges Neighbors to keep on coming. In her view, “It’s the most interesting thing in the paper, next to ‘Dennis the Menace.’ ”

Neighbors is glad it rates up there with that other menace.


If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com