Crop of the month: Rhubarb

The Moon was full three nights ago so I’m thinking about harvest. You can see other posts in this series by following my ‘harvest’ tag. This month, let’s admire rhubarb.

I’ve just finished eating this year’s first cut of rhubarb (Rheum x hybridum) from my allotment. You might already know that I garden in Yorkshire. I’m an off cum’d’un which means that I’m not Yorkshire born or bred but the county known as God’s Own Country is my home now. It’s home also to another off cum’d’un – rhubarb grows well here. Here’s a Yorkshire nursery telling us about the history of this great plant, as well as offering to sell us a tempting range of varieties.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) holds Britain’s National Collection of rhubarb varieties. That Collection is grown at several RHS gardens including Yorkshire’s own Harlow Carr. So it’s RHS I turn to for advice on rhubarb’s scientific name. RHS calls this crop R. x hybridum. Others prefer to call it R. x cultorum (scroll down for other scientific names) or R. rhabarbarum. I call it delicious.

Rheum is a large genus, related to other familiar plants. The Rhubarb Compendium tells us about many rhubarb species.

Anyway like I said, at this time of year in Britain the rhubarb season has just begun. Depending on which variety you’re growing, you can harvest rhubarb even when there’s snow on the ground. I grow two varieties (one very early, one mid-season) but I don’t know their names because I inherited them with my allotment. The RHS tells us that rhubarb is a very adaptable perennial which can be immortalised by dividing its crowns every few years. Allotmenteers give each other rhubarb crowns. I became quite popular when I realised that some of the crowns I could give away are of my ‘very early’ variety which, I think, might be Timperley Early.

Here’s a commercial rhubarb grower (in Yorkshire, natch) telling us many things about this crop. That grower reminds us that rhubarb can be forced into an even earlier crop by putting a barrel over the crown in winter.

Apart from forcing, which is an optional extra, the amateur rhubarb grower has an easy job with this crop. You can simply feed the crowns each winter with a barrowload of muck or compost, then harvest the shoots when they grow. Then take it to the kitchen.

In the kitchen rhubarb needs very little preparation apart from chucking its leaves into your compost bin. The leaves are poisonous because they contain oxalic acid, but when they’ve rotted down they’ll be fine compost for your soil. After trimming off the leaves, you can make the red stems into savoury or sweet rhubarb dishes.

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, rhubarb is a rival to parnips to be my favourite garden crop. This one’s a vegetable in the garden, because the edible part is its stem, but it’s a fruit in the kitchen because most people use it in sweet dishes. Lightly cooked rhubarb freezes well so you can keep on eating the glut right through the year. One of the best ways to use it is to make a classic rhubarb crumble, served with cream the way each of my grandmothers served it.

Spring is late in Britain this year but we do have rhubarb. Welcome to the new year’s harvest.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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6 Responses to Crop of the month: Rhubarb

  1. This is fantastic writing on Rhubarb. It gives the detail process.

  2. I’m enjoying the fact that it’s so cheap at the market at the moment. Particularly enjoying it with custard and a slew of crushed ginger nuts on the top.

  3. Daniel Digby says:

    This reminds me of all the ways my grandmother used to prepare rhubarb. The comparison with parsnips sounds strange in the States, since they are prepared so differently here.

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