Seasonal food: a guide to rhubarb
Eating sustainably is a great way to help care for the world around us. By basing our diets on what’s in season and locally-grown we can reduce the food miles of our meals, help the local economy and even cut down on the need for plastic packaging. It often leads to a diet that’s cheaper and healthier as well.
It's not always easy to achieve a sustainable diet, especially at the start of the year before the summer glut of fruit and vegetables arrives. Luckily there are some early contenders that we can rely on, including the humble rhubarb plant.
The rhubarb season begins in April for early varieties, and can continue through until July. It can even be eaten as early as January if the plants are ‘forced’, which means they’re covered or grown in dark sheds to prevent light reaching the plant. This causes the stalks to grow faster.
Rhubarb is a stalwart vegetable at many of the kitchen gardens we care for, and it’s a regular feature in our cafés and tea-rooms too. Our gardeners and chefs are experts at making the most of nature’s bounty, and now they’re passing on some of their top tips and recipes so you can enjoy rhubarb season at home.
" There’s nothing better than ‘pulling’ rhubarb in the morning and seeing people enjoy it in crumbles and cakes the same day. Eating food in season reduces air miles and packaging – so it’s better for the environment too."
Top tips for growing rhubarb
Rhubarb is an ideal crop for beginners as it's not too picky about soil type or where it’s grown, and doesn't really suffer from pests or disease. However if you’d like a bit more ‘grow-your own’ rhubarb guidance then try these top tips from Shirley, Head Gardener at Clumber Park.
Choosing a variety
Different rhubarb varieties suit different purposes. Victoria is great for crumble; Fulton's Strawberry Surprise makes a delicious Rhubarb fool dessert, and Timperley Early is perfect for forcing.
Extend the season
Grow a mix of early, main crop and late varieties and you can enjoy fresh home-grown rhubarb for months. Livingston is a great late variety.
Buy crowns, not seeds
Rhubarb seeds often don’t come ‘true’, which means that they don’t grow into the variety you were expecting. Buy established crowns instead so you know what you’re getting.
Save some space
If you only have a small garden or balcony you can grow rhubarb in a pot. Ace of Spades is ideal for this: just remember to keep it watered but not waterlogged.
Have a go at forcing
To try forcing at home, simply put upturned bucket over the crown in late January, making sure to exclude light. Forcing exhausts the plant though, so give it a rest next year.
Storing your harvest
Fresh rhubarb will keep for several days in a cool place, or up to two weeks in the fridge. It also freezes well once cooked, and is ideal for preserving.
Keep on top of pruning
Make sure to cut off flower stalks as soon as they appear, as they will affect the flavour of your crop if left on the crown.
Look after your rhubarb
Stop pulling stalks by late July, to ensure a good crop the following year. When winter comes you can divide any large crowns so you’ll end up with more plants.
A potted history of rhubarb
Rhubarb or Rheum rhabarbarum has a bit of a chequered past. Originating in East Asia, it was imported along the silk road to Britain by the end of the 14th century. It was originally used for medicinal purposes as a strong laxative, and the dark, bitter stalks were far more potent that the varieties we eat today.
From the 17th century onwards, people began to grow and cross-breed rhubarb in Western Europe (including Britain), eventually leading to the pink stalks familiar to modern gardeners. In the 18th century the falling price of sugar helped to sweeten the taste, and people began to use rhubarb in cooking as well as for its medicinal benefits. By the late 1800s there was even a special rhubarb train bringing forced rhubarb from Yorkshire to Covent Garden market for eager London buyers.
However the boom couldn’t last, and rhubarb’s popularity waned as the 20th century brought more exciting tinned, frozen and fresh produce to the table. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve begun to re-discover the vegetable – thanks largely to the growing trend for seasonal and more natural eating.
Five fascinating facts about rhubarb
Yorkshire's famous Rhubarb Triangle
The Rhubarb Triangle is a cluster of forcing sheds in Yorkshire. It was the heart of British rhubarb production in the 19th century, and is still famous today.
Protecting honey bees
Rhubarb leaves are poisonous due to high levels of oxalic acid. They are often used by beekeepers to control the viroa mite, which attacks honey bees.
Forcing the issue
Forced rhubarb is traditionally harvested by candlelight. When it's quiet in the sheds it’s possible to hear the stalks creaking faintly as they grow.
A Shakespearian laxative
Shakespeare included a reference to rhubarb’s laxative effects in Macbeth: “What rhubarb, cyme or what purgative drug would scoure these English hence?”
A valuable vegetable
An English price list of 1657 valued rhubarb at nearly three times the price of opium, which shows how much people would pay for a good digestive system.
" I’m a huge fan of rhubarb and when it’s in season I can’t get enough. I use it a lot for savoury as well as sweet dishes, inspired by the Victorians who were infinitely creative with their food."