The first stems of outdoor grown rhubarb usually start to emerge in early spring. Whilst it may seem to be a very British vegetable (rhubarb only masquerades as a fruit as it’s technically a vegetable) it actually originates from Siberia. The plants were cultivated in Europe from the 15th century but weren’t used as a food until the late 1700s. In Victorian times, rhubarb reached the height of it’s popularity and no garden was complete without at least one rhubarb plant. Many of the older varieties that Victorian gardeners would have been familiar with are becoming increasingly rare. However, thanks to the RHS garden at Harlow Carr and the kitchen garden at Clumber Park many of these plants are now being conserved. Clumber’s kitchen garden is the custodian of over 100 rhubarb varieties. Chris Margrave, the head gardener at Clumber, is no stranger to rhubarb growing. He grew up in Yorkshire’s rhubarb triangle and after seeing first hand the demise of the industry he helped to establish the National Rhubarb Collection whilst working at Harlow Carr in Harrogate. He’s now continuing this work at Clumber, hoping to continually add to their conservation collection of endangered rhubarb plants and also to develop new varieties.
The outdoor varieties aren’t as sweet or as tender as the forced stems so they usually need a little more cooking and extra sugar. Traditionally, rhubarb is used in fillings for pies, tarts and crumbles. Rhubarb and ginger are natural partners as is orange and of course, rhubarb and custard. Spoon poached rhubarb over dairy free coconut ice cream or coconut & passion fruit creams (see photo) for added zing and colour.
The tart flavour is also fantastic with lamb and pork too. Try serving spiced rhubarb as an unusual accompaniment to roasts and chops or add some chopped stems to a lamb tagine. Don’t be tempted to use the rhubarb leaves in cooking though as they are toxic.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant, typically bought as ‘crowns’ which are best planted between October and early March, depending on the weather. In a sunny position, space the plants about 75cm apart in free draining soil. Plant so that the top of the crown is 3cm below the surface of the soil. Avoid harvesting any stems the first year as this will weaken the plants. From the second year pull, don’t cut, the stems, harvesting only a few at a time.
To blanch the stems for a sweeter flavour, cover the plants in early February with special terracotta rhubarb forcers or tall pots. In the autumn, remove any old stems and apply a mulch of well rotted manure around the crown.
After 4 or 5 years, the mature crowns will need dividing so in the winter, use a spade to cut them into two or three smaller crowns and plant as before.
Early varieties to try include Timperley Early and Champagne which start cropping from March. Stockbridge Arrow and Victoria are other popular varieties which both crop later in the season. For vivid coloured stems try Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise which has also been voted the best flavoured rhubarb by RHS Wisley.