By Penny Ossowski
Rhubarb leaves are toxic never eat them or feed them to animals!!!
Stewed rhubarb and egg custard, that is what my Nana made when we were kids, I loved it. I'm sure most of us have memories of rhubarb somewhere in the recesses of our minds. Rhubarb is making a comeback as are many older styled foods, so how about growing some.
The first question that comes to mind "Is this perennial a vegetable, fruit or herb?". I tend to call it a vegetable, as that is what it looks like (e.g. Iike celery), but it is also a herb and can probably classed as a fruit it is up to you.
Rhubarb (Rheum x cultorum) is originally from Siberia, China, Mongolia and the Himalayas where it was grown for it medicinal properties around 27008C. From these areas various traders, travellers or invaders took it across Europe, apparently it has grown wild along the Volga River for centuries, eventually reaching England sometime in the late 16th century but it was not used as food until the 17th century when people had access to sugar to cook it with. Looking at its Asian beginnings it is naturally a very hardy and frost resistant plant. A frosty period in winter is said to help produce the best stalks.
To help you decide whether you want to grow rhubarb here are some of the ways to serve it
- rhubarb pie (with or with out apples, strawberries or other berries)
- plain stewed with custard or ice cream
- rhubarb chutney, jam, jelly
- rhubarb wine
- rhubarb crumble, cake, muffins, slices
- cold rhubarb soup
- stewed rhubarb served with roast pork
Now you've decided to grow rhubarb, choose whether to grow it from seed, seedlings or crowns.
Seeds or seedlings can be planted from spring through to autumn. It is advisable not to harvest leaves from seedlings during their first year of growth, allowing their root system to develop and gain strength. Seeds can be sown into seed trays then transplanted to the garden bed when about 5cm high. Crowns (sections of the dormant root with eyes it will shoot from) are available during winter to early spring and should be planted at this time. Crowns should be planted about 10cm below the soil surface with the crown bud about 5cm below the soil surface.
Rhubarb is known for its red stalks but sometimes these turn out to be green. Stalk colour varies from dark red, to pink to green and the colour does not change with soil type or age. The green stalked varieties are often said to be more vigorous with a higher yield while the redder varieties are said to be sweeter but this could vary from crop to crop.
Rhubarb will grow in most soil types with a pH 5.25 to 6.75, either in full sun or part shade but must be well drained, the soil should not become waterlogged. If you have clay soil, build up the garden beds to improve the drainage. When selecting your site remember that they do not like to be disturbed once established and a good rhubarb plant will last you for many years and should not be lifted for at least 5 years for division. Soil should be prepared about a month before planting. Dig the soil very deeply making sure all weeds are totally removed. Dig in a good quantity of organic compost, well rotted manure and some blood and bone. High nitrogen fertilisers will encourage the development of healthy stalks and leaves.
If your location or soil is not suitable for growing rhubarb it can be successfully grown in containers, as long as the container is large enough to accommodate a season's growth. It will need more care than in the ground. Pots will need to be located in a sunny position, soil will need to have plenty of organic matter, some blood and bone and plenty of water.
Rhubarb is not affected by many pests or diseases. It is susceptible to crown rot, which is caused by a fungus and results in the whole plant collapsing (if affected it should be destroyed). Mulch too close to the crown and poor drainage can cause the crown and roots to rot so be wary of this. Snails and slugs love rhubarb so some traps may be necessary to stop them. Grasshoppers love the leaves but as they are not edible for us this is not usually a problem.
Eden Seeds stock the following Heritage rhubarb seeds which can be sown from spring through to Autumn.
- CRIMSON Crimson stems especially in winter months.
- GLASKINS PERPETUAL- Bright red stems, quick growing, can be harvested after the first year.
- VICTORIA Stems mostly green until colder weather when some crimson colouration occurs. Vigorous and upright, reliable, hardy, and heavy producing. Used mainly for
pie filling, "excellent flavour"
Eden Seeds carries Rhubarb seed for home gardeners. You can buy Rhubarb seeds online to be posted Australia wide.
After planting seedlings or crowns mulch well to help retain moisture in the soil and to keep out weeds but don't allow mulch touch the stalks. Unless you particularly want to save seeds from your rhubarb remove any flower or seed stalks as soon as they appear as they will lessen the quality of the leaf stalks. After at least 5 years of harvesting rhubarb leaves, towards the end of their dormant period in late winter, you may need to lift or dig out the roots and divide them into 3 or 4 smaller pieces, each piece should have one or more strong white/pink buds on it. Then plant each one as described above. Keep plants well watered in summer, don't let them dry out or the stems will not be juicy. Water at the base of the plant-never directly over its leaves or stems as rhubarb stems are susceptible to rots and rusts. Watering with liquid fertilisers (fish emulsion, seaweed, comfrey teas, worm pee) will provide moisture and food for juicy healthy stalks. In late autumn carefully work compost and well broken down manure into the soil around the crown.
In some countries they force rhubarb. This is done by placing a container (box, large pot, bucket etc.) over the rhubarb as soon as it begins to show signs of growth to exclude light and increase the warmth. The rhubarb stems will grow very tall, tender and very sweet in about four weeks. When it outgrows the covering pick then leave the rhubarb to recover for next year. It's easy to do and worth a try particularly if you have several rhubarb plants and you live in a cooler area.
The quality of the stalks is usually highest about the middle of spring when they have just reached full size and before any coarse fibre develops. They should be crisp and fairly thick. To harvest the stalks, take stalks from the outside of the clump pulling cleanly downwards and sideways and always leave at least three or four stems in the centre of the clump to keep feeding the root system.
Trim the leaves from the stems and put the leaves into the compost heap or make Rhubarb Spray (use for sap sucking insects) but definitely don't eat them or feed them to animals because they are poisonous. Rhubarb leaves and roots have a very high oxalic acid content which makes them very poisonous. The freshly harvested stalks can be kept in the refrigerator, unwashed and wrapped tightly in plastic, for up to three weeks. When cooking fresh rhubarb use a vegetable peeler to remove any brown or scaly spots. Peeling the entire stalk is not usually necessary with young stems just trim the ends, wash and dry the stalks. To cook rhubarb use anodised, aluminium, stainless steel, Teflon coated aluminium or enamel-coated cast iron cookware as the rhubarb is very acidic and will react with other surfaces.
To freeze Chop into one and a half cm pieces, spread on a tray covered with baking paper and place in freezer. Once frozen, put the pieces into a plastic bag, seal tightly and put back into the freezer. Frozen rhubarb will keep for up to six months.
Medicinally Rhubarb has been used as a mild laxative, an antibiotic, restoring energy, toning the body, stimulating appetite and for liver problems. It is a traditional Chinese medicine where for thousands of years Chinese doctors have recommended it for its medicinal qualities as a laxative, to reduce fever and to cleanse the body.