Rhubarb, a native of Siberia, is normally thought of and used as a fruit. In the Spring, the red stems grow up from a very thick, fleshy root called a crown. As the stems are the first “fruit” of the season, they are eagerly sought after to be used as “fruit” fillings for crumbles and pies. It is also frequently made into a sauce for oily food such as duck or fish.
Commercially, the best “forced” or early season rhubarb is grown in a small area known as the Rhubarb triangle around Wakefield in Yorkshire. The crowns are grown in darkness in hot house sheds, and the earliest rhubarb stalks are picked by candlelight!
Amateurs can “force” rhubarb crowns into earlier growth, by covering the dormant buds with an upturned barrel or dustbin to exclude light, from December. When the dormant buds start to grow, the stems are forced to try and reach the light, making them more succulent and tender by March. Restrict your harvest, from a third or a half or the plant stems in any one year, so as not to weaken the plant. The stems allowed to grow normally, are more bitter due to oxalic acid, and not as tender. For this reason, it is best to only use “forced” rhubarb.
Warning. The leaves are poisonous and must not be eaten.
Rhubarb is a hungry plant and benefits from a generous helping of manure or Growmore fertiliser in the late Winter. The plants are usually put in an “out of the way” corner of the ground, as you do not want to move them around, and they will spend the summer gaining strength. Traditionally, young leaves of “Sweet Cicely” were added to Rhubarb dishes to add sweetness and counter the oxalic acid. It has a slight aniseed smell. Sweet Cicely is easily grown from seed.
Fresh Rhubarb is best picked by gently pulling and twisting the base of the stalk away from the remaining bud. Cut off the poisonous green leaf and place in your compost heap. While the rhubarb stems will keep for several days in a fridge, they are best used for puddings, pies, jam or ice cream fairly quickly. See the recipes.
For long term storage, it is possible to bottle rhubarb or to freeze it but the texture is adversely affected.
Pests and diseases are few. As Slugs and snails can cause damage to the leaves and stems, particularly when it is being “forced”, use slug pellets under the bin or barrel.
After a few years, the rhubarb stalks may become thin and cropping falls off. The plants can be rejuvenated by splitting up the crowns and replanting a piece of the root containing several buds, into a fresh piece of ground. While the flower and seed spikes are spectacular, it is best to remove any flower spikes that form to conserve the energy of the plant.
Suggested varieties of Rhubarb.
Timperley early. This is a very early variety with a good flavour and suitable for forcing.
Livingstone. This is a reletively new variety which unusually, will continue to grow through the Summer and still be edible in the early Autumn.
SWEET CICILY (Myrrhys odorata)
It is a tall, perennial plant that dies down in the Winter, but obligingly grows again in time for cooking with forced rhubarb. The finely divided leaves have an aniseed taste, while the umbrels of small white flowers have a smell of myrrh or elderflowers. The long seeds germinate readily.
The addition of finely chopped leaves can reduce the amount of sugar, required to be added to tart fruit dishes, by half. It certainly makes the fruit far more palatable.