There’s more to good old-fashioned rhubarb than meets the eye. Firstly, it has a somewhat shady back story. Don’t ask about the relatives – it’s part of a plant family that you just wouldn’t mess with: the knotweeds – Polygonaceae – which includes fearsome plants like Japanese knotweed and the equally fearsome (though not nearly as invasive) gunnera (Gunnera manicata ) – which I once saw recommended in a catalogue as ‘a good plant for scaring children’.
Rhubarb is a plant with history. Hailing from faraway Asian lands, it was introduced to Europe around 400 years ago, and for its first couple of centuries west of the Urals it was considered a medicinal plant, being used to treat constipation. Its leaves are poisonous (although it’s fine to add them to the compost heap – and some gardeners use them as an anti-weed mulch on the veg patch). Some gardeners still make use of their toxicity by boiling them up to make an anti-insect spray – although judging by the fact that no company has taken it on as an ‘organic’ product, I can’t say I hold out much hope that it works.
Growing (and eating) tips
Luck for us, rhubarb – unlike its relatives – isn’t invasive; and the stems are a delicious, easily-grown treat to eat. Like most crops that you grow for their leaves and stems (rather than for flowers or fruit), rhubarb likes a rich soil and plenty of water, and will cope with a bit of shade. Be kind to your plants, feed them with organic fertiliser in the late winter, and/or mulch them with plenty of compost or manure. Having said that, they’re super-tough and will survive and crop pretty much anywhere – it’s just the more you put in, the more you’ll get back.
For the sweetest rhubarb, try ‘forcing’ plants – put a tall bucket (a cheap plastic bin would do fine – wish I’d thought of that earlier!) over the plants in mid-latewinter. Pack it with straw and weigh down with a brick or two on top to stop it blowing away. In a month or two you’ll have delicious, slender, pink rhubarb – it’s not only earlier than the normal stuff, it’ll be sweeter too.
1) Pull, don’t cut – grip the stems near to the base and give a gentle but firm tug. If you cut them, stubs will be left which will then rot, potentially spoiling the next picking
2) Don’t pick too much – never more than a third of the stems at once, and not after July. You want the plant to have some oomph left for next year. Rhubarb plants can easily last a decade if looked after well.
And as for eating…. custard is obviously absolutely, unquestionably necessary. Crumble is divine, but it’s not the only way to cook it. Rhubarb can be roasted– add chunks of stem ginger (or dabs of marmalade) for something truly special. And don’t forget the custard!