This constant kitchen favourite, often much maligned garden staple of many a UK garden, is, in my mind, a proper, tights wearing, underpants over the top, proper superhero plant. Believe me I'll fight my corner on this one, I can't think of many plants with its tenacity and versatility. In fact I think it needs it own cape. The genus is Rheum, the edibles are amazing and the ornamentals are gorgeous in any garden. You'll probably have one, if you don't, please try and find space for one, they're awesome. I grow the edible kind, but then again, I'm prone to eating alot, so that makes perfect sense doesn't it.
Its the Clark Kent of the veggie patch in my mind, cooked and eaten as a fruit, its secretly a super robust vegetable in fruits clothing, but more on that in a bit. Rhubarb is one of the toughest, most common plants you'll find in most gardens. Its flashy red stems and almost umbrella sized crinkly leaves are common to most folks and it comes back every year (a perennial). Ripped from the ground and dipped in sugar, stems used as play swords, leaves as hats or the whole thing as an attractive play umbrella. Stems picked and chopped and baked in crumbles, chutney's and jams, its truly a star of the garden.
Rhubarb is also one of the easiest plants to cultivate. Its easy from seed although the plants (being perennial) take a while longer to mature and to be honest can be a bit 'scrappy' but they do come good from seed. Many folks opt for growing them from 'crowns' or baby mature plants which you'll see in garden centres at this time of year. Potted plants tend not to be that much more expensive. However, best option in my opinion is to find a friend with a large rhubarb patch or a lovely prolific plant and ask them for a bit of it for you.
OK so they'll have to really put a spade right through a bit of it for you - but hey, what are friends for, except dividing their plants for your pleasure? Just make sure you get a chunk of root with a few big fat buds on it. The Island Smallholder shows it so well, why not pop over?
Once you're in possession of your lovely new rhubarb crown, dig a lovely deep hole, add lots of lovely organic matter and feed it well and plant your new to you crown. You'll be best to leave it to establish for a bit, but you'll be scoffing rhubarb next season like you've never known. And, mind on, they don't grow that well on fresh air (well they nearly do) but a well prepared hole and lots of organic matter at the start of the growing season does wonders. You'll soon be harvesting lots of lovely stems. If you want early rhubarb - forcing - a way of encouraging the new stems quicker in the spring can be done by covering the plant with forcing pots (or a large bucket) and encouraging the stems to grow. Makes for an early crop and lots of forcing pots look quite bonnie. More on that here.
I prefer a bucket, but each to their own. Where I live forcing pots are blown over easily and often break - so a bucket and a fine 'rock' does the job just grand.
Under its own steam, its generally up and about early March if you're lucky, April if you're not and will grow and crop until the autumn or potentially the first frosts. Mind on, if its frosted, don't eat the stems as the chemicals in the leaves can leach down into the damaged tissue. As for harvesting - twist the leaf off the stem, don't cut it, does less damage that way, if you don't mind.
Soon like up here in Orkney you'll be growing what seems like 'triffid' rhubarb. Yes that is rhubarb, yes its in Orkney and yes its often bigger than a small building. As much as we're all familiar with this plant - did you know it originates from regions of Siberia, China and Tibet? Now its love of growing in our UK climate (even in the windy north) seems to make more sense doesn't it? So not real shock that it grows in most gardens in the UK and is often heralded the best crop in many an Orkney and Shetland garden. In fact it doesn't actually like it hot - if the temperatures go up, its time for it to go to bed for the summer, it prefers cool climates. Clever plant.
I reckon a canny lass could make a living from rhubarb if they so wanted........like I said its a superhero plant. Hardly any pests bother it - the concentrations of chemicals in its leaves put off the most mauranding of rabbits and aphids bother the leaves on occasion but its never too bad. The plants can sometimes suffer from 'crown rot' - just make sure yours isn't sitting in a puddle, with decent drainage you should be OK. Cultivation and some varieties on the RHS site here. Timerply Early and Victoria get my vote, as does the local Orkney rhubarb, species unknown, except I suspect it has 'giant' or 'muckle' in the name somewhere......
You see you walk passed the plants all the time in your garden (bag of sugar in hand) ready to pounce on them to harvest them, but do you really know them?
Rhubarb in its medicinal form itself has actually been in cultivation for over 4500 years (not in my garden, I'm not THAT old) a plant favoured by many in the East for its healing properties of the roots. It originally came to the UK by a cheeky wee Scottish Dr who'd smuggled the much sought after seed out of Russia, when his patron the Czar wasn't looking, which was cultivated by an apothecary in Banbury. It was brought here originally as a medicine, highly sought after, never thought to be eaten until a hungry chap in 1777 decided to try some of the stalks stewed with a bit of sugar and rhubarb pie was borne. So we've been scoffing it since pretty much 1778 and haven't stopped since.
Did you know that whilst we love to eat the stalks and the leaves are quite poisonous containing several chemicals which are really not very agreeable, but the flower heads are edible when young?
They have a crunchy 'sour' taste an excellent bit of information about them all over at 'Of Plums and Pignuts' where this beautiful photograph came from.
Just remember, its essential to remove all the leaf and stalk to enjoy the crunchy blooms at their best. Great pickled or with lemon too or in a stir fry. Why not give it a try?
Did you also know the 'Rhubarb triangle' exists in Yorkshire between Wakefield, Morely and Rothwell? You see you think you know a plant then you learn a whole load of new things.
The young tender new shoots which are forced for early crops, were harvested by candlelight before they were popped on a special express train to London (and sometimes Paris) from Xmas to early Easter in the early twentiethcentury when rhubarb was at its peak. Forced rhubarb is still in production today, its the gorgeous pink stems you'll see in supermarkets and markets early in the season. 'Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb' has been awarded EU Protected Designation of Origin status (PDO) from February 2010. There's a similar 'triangle' in the hills of Perthshire, between Blairgowrie and Alyth, not quite as big but with tasty rhubarb nevertheless.
And why do we grow it? Well as a vegetable mauranding as a fruit baked or boiled or dipped in sugar its great to eat in pies crumbles, jams, sponges and puddings of all shapes and sizes. Great with custard too.
As for savoury dishes - its gorgeous in a salad with beetroot and a lovely rich cheese such as Roquefort. It even makes a stunning savory curry combined with lentils, spinach and peppers.
It makes a delicious cordial drink (although I'd add citric acid or lemon to the recipe given for a bit of 'bite') and wines, liqueurs and even champagne. Recipes for many of these here but google rhubarb and see what winning combination you come up with. More good recipes here and Nigel loves it so he's got alot to say about it here.
So, have I convinced you of its superhero status yet? Are you eyeing up your rhubarb with newly found admiration?
A proven medicinal plant, which is easily cultivated (sometimes TOO easily) in our UK climates pretty much from north to south. So low maintenance, its practically sleeping in the garden not needing anything from you at all aside a bit of organic matter now and again whilst you ready a bowl of sugar and a very large appetite.
And yes, I'm afraid its a vegetable in fruits clothing. On the subject of this I do not lie, you're eating a very fine fleshy leaf stalk (petiole) smothered in sugar. I know it makes no sense, but its tasty. And despite an American court ruling, saying its a fruit, seriously, its a vegetable. Its good with custard though, which I'll grant you is a bit confusing. But tasty it is.
So rhubarb, my own little (or large) robust super hero plant, close to my own heart. I'm almost as fond of it as Roobarb the dog, (non-edible) horticultural hound extraordinaire. A favourite childhood UK TV series.
Also excellent with custard (a very naughty cat).
I'll stop the rhubarb haivers now. I promise. In truth its 'homework' revision for tomorrow when I'll be proper haivering in real life.
So today, (bright but cold, wind still striping skin from unwrapped up individuals with no thought to its owner, thanks for asking!) started a bit 'meh' as my peedie youngling uni chap would say. A kinda black dog day. Thoughts of impending greenhouse sitting and trips to the lands of the trees couldn't even lift my spirits. Like I say, a kind of black dog kinda day. So I tried to draw it out on the beach, like a sad flower. They don't suit being sad do they?
We all (probably) have them. I'm prone, especially when the weathers not great. But today was particularly bad, the kind of day that wakes you up at 4am, just to remind you that you're not particularly funky today and keeps you awake just to make sure you experience most of it. However it turned around, and some. Today was a lucky day, I'm prone to the old black dog, sitting on my chest, but today, as slow at it shifted, by the end of the day, it lifted. Hopefully to a cosy place, away from folks, just sleeping.
Firstly this lassie had a few things to do at the local 'learning factory' and was engrossed in sorting out seeds and such like for her class (all good) whilst nowt is really sowed yet outside and limited inside, its soon chaps, soon, I promise. OK, in real life, nothing much is sown yet, aside some tender indoor types, but its fun thinking about it all.
Secondly, this lunatic can't ever stop and just look at a decent tractor with a plough on and not grin like a crazy beast. Ploughs mean the land is drying out, it means soon it will be sowing time and soon things will grow. And they're big and funky and just lovely. Call me sad but when I see fields beginning to be ploughed, I know spring is almost here, even up in the windy north. And, I ponder my seeds just a wee bit more.
So having coveted ploughs, and seeds, I visited a chum for a blether and a bit of mutual grumbles and smiles and decided to go off and stalk some potatoes at the local garden centre. And, thoughts turn to chitting, we can start that the now, if we're careful. OK so we can't plant them yet up here, but a bit of looking never hurts........and more time outside, no rain and squalls means we can walk and getting out helps lots.
A wee detour for a stomp with the mutts made me literally fall over a heart. I love when folks do this kind of unintrusive art on the maritime cliff tops of the west of Orkney (Yesnaby). At this point you'll understand why my legs are short and well used. Yes, I do a lot of walking, at this time of year if the weather isn't sideways, we walk, like I say it helps, I watch buds, I watch the grass begin to change colour from 'wind burnt' beige to green and the birds begin to sing and some!
This evening TRG (The Rock God) and I walked the hounds over to a wee establishing woodland to have a meander after tea. I love walking after work, its like the days really are longer.
Home to a nice wee fire, a cuppa and a lovely email inviting me for an invite for interview at one of my favourite gardens. Its for an edible gardener post, part time, which suits my gardening and cooking addiction, so please, cross everything for me. Please! I know I'm over enthusiastic when it comes to edibles, that's OK, its how they imparted it to me in the first place.
So life turned out much better than expected today. The weather was kind, a friend listened (Thank you!) and my eyes feasted on free stuff and took my mind of the growing season which others are indulging in now and I'm still dreaming of.
I promise normal service resumes soon, on gardening, which I'd haiver happily about seeds and growing and all that jazz. But, lets be honest, there aint much happening aside a few tomato shoots wrapped up in jumpers, under glass with a heater on sitting looking out at the weather waiting for it to warm up - hardly very tough I'd say. Outdoors its all a slumber (aside the celandine who's flowering and the dandielions who are waking up), even the hardiest of plants, the rhubarb, have not long woken up here. Quite normal, it was only doing this at a similar time in 2011..........and the stuff in the work plots is only looking better due to less snow. OK to Monty and his (27.41 minutes in 'first picking of rhubarb)..........happy for you mate, I promise. But, lets be honest - my work plots of rhubarb are looking a wee bit like this........
I'd hardly say we're in line for a crumble anytime soon? At least those of you in the 'sooth' are keeping us abreast of things to come? But, I'm happy Monty's showing me the way forward, in say a month or six weeks or so...........
PS MR Monty - Our seasons are nicely different, our snow drops are still mostly fine, and not going over - I guess we win in some ways! I'm not midering, honest, its been a grand day. But life's kinda different everywhere isn't it, we should enjoy it rather than be cross we're missing out?
Gotta keep it a bit positive right?
I learnt that today. I also learnt its OK to say, I'm not good today, really, please listen, I'm not good. Mostly I'm fine, but today I'm not good. I know I dress it up in flippancy and nonsense but sometimes I'm just not good. I walk (alot) I find friends to listen (sorry, alot) and I walk some more, and eventually often I come good, after a while, but even still, I come good.
I'm lucky often there are folks about to help lift me out of it. If you sometimes suffer from the Black Dog perhaps a look at this will help. My black dog started like a giant and shrunk to a more manageable 'peedie sized' version today. For that I'm grateful, I have lovely friends, but they can only help if you allow them to listen. I've learnt that.
Having a Black Dog Day isn't fun there are lots of folks to listen even if you can't to talk to anyone at home. I hope you find some folks to talk to if you need, to help yours. I'm lucky I've plenty to eat and I'm warm and I've folks around me. I hope you have too.
A bit of (windless) sunshine would be nice too though eh? And perhaps considering 'mainstream UK gardening' documented in southern UK, as an indicator of exciting things to come in the 'north' for many of us. All about perspective eh?
We're not missing out right now, we're pre-armed and fore-warned. Keep telling yourself that. After all its often a long, hard, dark autumn/winter/about to be spring for those of us in the north. Whilst we're hardy, its a long haul.
There's a reason why The Beechgrove Garden starts four weeks after Gardeners World after all. I wonder if they show it in the north/ upland middle of England and the more exposed parts of Wales too? Probably go down like a dream.