The wonders of rhubarb


Is there anything you can’t do with rhubarb, I wonder?

rhubarb 'Champagne'I must have tried most things in my time. I’ve made cakes with it and stewed it for breakfast. I’ve pickled it into chutney and combined it with ginger in an exceptionally yummy marmalade. I’ve made crumble, of course, and adapted the same recipe with a sort of sponge mix and made rhubarb crumble biscuits just the right size for packed lunches. I’ve made icecream with it and whipped it into cream for a fool that makes you go weak at the knees.

I’ve also boiled the leaves up in water and diluted the cooled liquid before spraying them on my aphid-infested crops: I was doing it just for fun, you understand, and am absolutely not saying I was using it as a pesticide: it can’t be one, anyway, since it hasn’t been given a certificate by the stuffed shirts who populate those big buildings in Brussels. It was pure coincidence that all the aphids died shortly afterwards.

Of course I might have been doing it for the other beneficial side-effect of boiling rhubarb leaves: it leaves your pans spick and span and the cleanest you’ll ever have seen them. Something to do with the oxalic acid content, I believe, and a lot less work than Brillo pads. And even after all that, I haven’t exhausted the possible uses for rhubarb. You can make a hair dye from it that bleaches mousey brown hair a honey blonde. You can make paper from the fibres in the stems.

rhubarb 'Victoria'Anyway. So I must have the most useful plant in the world sitting right outside my back door, as I have been picking it's slender pink stems in March.! It’s also partly to do with the variety. ‘Timperley Early’ does what it says on the tin: it’s early. Very early. About as early as it’s possible to be without actually catching up with yourself behind, if you get my drift. It’s one of the main forcing varieties.

You should actually always grow three rhubarb crowns, as they need a year to recover after forcing. So you have one crown you’re forcing, one which is recovering from last year’s forcing and the third one to pick at the usual time (which you’ll be forcing next January). Mind you the idea of eating that much rhubarb brings me out in spots: these are the most amazingly generous plants.

From my one measly two-year-old crown I can pick four or five stems every single day: and that’s easily enough to keep me plus rhubarb-loving family in breakfast fruit and crumbles with some to spare. The ‘Victoria’ crown I had at the allotment was twice as big and took up over half the 8ft x 4ft raised bed it was in: these are monster plants. They don’t require much in return: just a nice rich soil (they are a bit greedy, so the richer, the better), a bit of sunshine (though they’ll put up with shade) and room to grow. You do need to divide them up into chunks (bit of root, bit of shoot) every four or five years: as soon as they start flowering, in fact, since that’s a sure sign they’re not happy and need a bit of rejuvenating. But that’s it. Not bad for year after year after year of providing very nearly everything you could possibly need.