Rhubarb: that wonderful sweet and sour plant so popular for pies, preserves, and other summery sweet treats. It is lovely with strawberries and gooseberries or on its own.

It is in season but what is it and how can you make the most of it?

Rhubarb is a relative of the buckwheat family. You might think it is a fruit because you can make such delicious pies, crumbles, cobblers, and preserves with it but it is in fact a vegetable.

Rhubarb was not always used for cooking. It originally came to Europe from Asia where it was used in traditional Chinese medicine. It was a popular ingredient for medicines that treated digestive complaints.

It's medicinal efficacy is much debated these days and the leaves of the rhubarb plant can actually be toxic if eaten in large quantities so make sure it is kept away from pets and children.

Rhubarb is grown most successfully in colder climates. It is a naturally northern vegetable. It comes into season as early as April and can be harvested as late as September. It can be green house grown all year around.

Take advantage of this long growing season and seek out local sources for the freshest product available. Canned rhubarb is perfectly acceptable for using in sauces but for pies and crumble fresh is best.

If you want to try your hand at growing your own rhubarb you should know that it is a perennial and very hardy. In fact it needs a cold climate to thrive at all. It is more difficult to grow from seed so take a look around your local garden centre for mature plants. Once planted you will be enjoying this delicious crop for more than 10 years.

Although it is used in desserts and jams rhubarb is very nutritious. One cup (122 grams) of raw rhubarb can provide you with 16% of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C and 10% of your RDA of calcium. Adding sugar and stewing your rhubarb makes it a little less healthy but it is still high in fibre and low in fat.

There are over 60 species of rhubarb to choose from. The most commonly eaten kind is Hothouse or Strawberry. It is bright red and pink and it is useful to note that the redder your rhubarb the less sugar you will need.

If you are cooking rhubarb add orange or apple juice as well as sugar and always add your sugar AFTER cooking. You will need less to cut the tartness.