Robert Tomlinson harvests an early crop on his farm in Yorkshire's ”Rhubarb Triangle”
Root and Branch

As easy as pie plant

How to pamper your rhubarb patch

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Everyone has their own favourite first sign of spring, whether it’s golden daffs bobbing by the roadside, frolicking lambs or the evocative scent that accompanies the drone of a lawn mower waking from hibernation. 

Mine has to be glimpsing that first flash of impossibly bright pink in the rhubarb bed. As colour pops go, it’s hard to beat, but it also stirs a greedy longing for tangy crumbles and compotes, chutneys and fools. There’s a reason American homesteaders named it the pie plant. 

A daily “Rhubarb Express” transported tonnes of the stuff by rail

Surprisingly — or not, if you’re among those who can’t stand it, though really, you don’t know what you’re missing — rhubarb’s culinary history stretches back only to the nineteenth century. Originating in Asia, it was traded along the Silk Route and first arrived here as a medicinal plant, prized not for its stalks but its roots. In medieval Europe, it was an import more valuable than opium and saffron. 

Once the Victorians discovered that it could be eaten, the fruit (botanically, it’s a vegetable) became all the rage in the kitchen: Mrs Beeton’s rhubarb recipes included tarts, suet puddings and jam. After forced rhubarb was stumbled upon by chance at the Chelsea Physic Garden, its candle-lit cultivation took off in Yorkshire, helped by a reliably wet climate. 

At the peak of its popularity, a daily “Rhubarb Express” transported tonnes of the stuff by rail from Leeds to Covent Garden market, even to Paris. 

It was suggested in the First World War that the leaves were a suitable food for soldiers. They are of course poisonous, so this resulted in at least one death and landed rhubarb with a reputation that trails it still (despite their toxicity, it’s perfectly safe to compost the leaves, and you can also boil them up and use the liquor as an aphid spray. Bonus side effect? It’s a whizz at deep-cleaning pans). 

Rhubarb is famously hardy. It enjoys — indeed needs — the cold, will tolerate partial shade and is unfussy about soil types, requiring only that it be well drained. You can plant dormant crowns now and fill the bed out with strawberries; a delicious pairing on the plate, they function like mulch while growing, keeping weeds down and moisture in. 

As to harvesting, you do need to exercise initial restraint: pick nothing during the first year, and the following year gather only a few stalks, twisting rather than snapping. After that, you can look forward to armfuls. 

This year, I’m vowing to pamper my rhubarb patch

Or so I thought. Down at the allotment, our rhubarb patch is now entering its fourth year but last year’s crop was grudging to say the least. As the growing season progressed, almost every crown tried to burst into spontaneous bloom. Though I whipped out the buds before they could flower, my crop was decidedly lacklustre. 

The causes of bolting rhubarb are numerous. Once plants reach a certain age, they’re wont to try to reproduce, and some varieties are more prone to putting on a floral show than others — Victoria and Red Crimson especially. We think of them as being largely indestructible, but rhubarb plants don’t much care for stress. 

Last April there were more frosts in the UK than in any other April since records began, and the average night-time temperature was lower than in January. All of which my rhubarb could have coped with, but for the fact that it was also exceptionally dry. 

This year, I’m vowing to pamper my rhubarb patch, and have begun by mulching with a good couple of inches of compost, being careful not to cover the crowns. I’ll also be taking care not to neglect it when it comes to watering and feeding. But I can’t help wondering what kind of weather challenges the coming months hold. 

Meteorologists are leery of peering much beyond 10 days or so, at which point their 80-90 per cent accuracy plummets to around 50 per cent. As gardeners, however, we have heaps of folksy wisdom at our fingertips. 

Was last month notably misty? Because “So many mists in March you see / So many frosts in May will be.” Rhubarb, rhubarb, I hear you say, but some of these old saws turn out to have scientific grounding. The one about pine cones opening up when good weather is on the way? Absolutely true. 

Given the fickle nature of our nation’s weather, especially at this time of year, it surely can’t hurt to factor in folk wisdom. Now how does that saying go? “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.”

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