Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb

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 twentieth century 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.

More on that later.


  1. After reading this prose poem to the magnificent Rhubarb, I'm almost tempted to cover our whole half acre in glorious red and green. Thanks for unearthing pleasant memories of allotments past and providing an encouraging thought-mulch to a future garden.

    1. Professed as the best garden crop in Orkney and Shetland - give it a go!

  2. Love love LOVE this. Nearly as much as I love rhubarb. And indeed Roobarb - well who wouldn't?

    1. Gave this same speech at the RBGE interview and they loved the concept. Sadly no job for me - but never know what's round the corner.

  3. Delicious stuff. Sadly mine is not doing too well at the moment - it's in a grassy corner of our allotment and I think the grass is winning.

    Our favourite in this household is stewed rhubarb over Mackie's honeycomb ice cream.

    1. Oh Linda that does sound good. My fave is as jam with ginger over a newly baked scone..........Love stewed rhubarb in yoghurt and with custard though and as crumble......

      Too many choices - nice to see you must pop over to your patch.

      I'll soon be doon sooth. An offer is in..........