(Species: Rheum - Family: Polygonaceae)
Rhubarb and its origins
Rhubarb is a hardy, herbaceous perennial garden vegetable.
Although it is classed as a vegetable, and is related to sorrel, the stems are cooked with sugar and eaten as a fruit however the leaves are toxic.
Its many different species grow wild in the mountains of the west and north-west provinces of China and the adjoining Tibetan territory. The name Rheum is supposedly derived from Rha, the old name for the Volga, whose banks the plants colonise.
It was not until the 18th century that the plant was recorded as a food plant in Europe and America.
The earliest known use of rhubarb as a food was as a pie filling.
Rhubarb has thick rhizomes at its base, long, thick petioles or stalks in shades of pale green to crimson and large, frilly, heart-shaped leaves. It grows up to 90cm in height and width, and makes a handsome ornamental plant.
Two of the best varieties for the garden are Victoria, which produces juicy, medium-sized stems, and Timperley Early, that crops early and has thick, robust rhubarb stems.
How to plant: Rhubarb
When growing rhubarb, plant dormant crowns or container-grown plants in winter or late spring. Place them in a vegetable plot or open ground which offers a sunny site and well-drained, fertile soil that does not dry out.
One or two crowns of rhubarb are plenty for a family. Crowns offer a wider choice of cultivars, but make sure you buy them from reputable suppliers. You can also grow the fruit plant from seed, but quality can be variable; sow in small pots, and choose the sturdiest seedlings for planting out.
Water the plants while they are establishing, and don't harvest your fruit until they it is in its second year. Feed every spring with well-rotted manure or XXXX general fertiliser.
Forcing rhubarb - artificially raising the temperature - will deliver earlier, more tender stems. This is simply done by covering the crowns with a special tall pot, a rhubarb forcer, in late winter, but any tall pot can be employed. When shoots appear, harvest within four weeks.
When harvesting, only remove up to half the stalks at any time, when the leaves are fully open. Pull the stem away with a twisting motion at the wrist; don't cut it.
Slugs and snails can be a problem, especially when the stalks are being forced, so keep a vigilant eye.
Propagation of Rhubarb
Propagation of rhubarb is difficult from seed. The best way to increase stock is by division of the fruit plants, which need to be divided every few years or they become congested and weaken.
In late autumn, carefully dig up the rhizome at the base of the plant, and cut it up with a spade so that each section has at least two healthy buds. Replant these divisions straightaway. Old, unproductive centres of large clumps can be discarded.
Did you know: Rhubarb facts
There are many rhubarb festivals held around the world, from Australia, where Queensland holds an annual avocado and rhubarb festival, to Wakefield, UK, where the annual rhubarb championships are held.In ancient China, rhubarb was cultivated for its medicinal purgative qualities, and is still one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine.