Varieties like 'Timperley Early' will provide a crop of sweet red stems by March when grown in the garden. But it’s also possible to force rhubarb into premature growth by using a terracotta pot or upturned dustbin to create dark, warm conditions. This produces soft, champagne-pink stems up to six weeks earlier and they are delicious.
History of rhubarb
Rhubarb was not eaten at the dinner table until the 19th century. Susan Campbell, in her excellent A History of Kitchen Gardening (available at a discount from Saga Books), tells us that in the 18th century rhubarb "was a novelty" and likely to be used more for medicine than for culinary purposes. Chinese herbalists were grinding up the dried roots into a powder as early as 2700 BC. Anyone who has ever eaten a large bowl of fresh rhubarb will probably be able to guess the reason why. The Chinese used it as a purgative.
But, by the sixteenth century, large amounts of money were spent importing the powder as rhubarb only grew naturally in China, Siberia and The Himalayas. 'Rha' is actually the ancient name of the River Volga in Russia and gives the plant its generic name.
The government were concerned about the amount of money leaving British shores and, in 1763, The London Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce offered a Gold Medal to the person who could raise the most plants. The medal was given to Sir William Fordyce who raised 300 plants.
By 1815, rhubarb tart had become a popular dessert on the menu. When the Sugar Tax was repealed in 1874, rhubarb gained even more in popularity. One wonders whether the practice of putting a Sweet Cicely leaf (Myrrhis odorata) was an 18th-century practice. It certainly cuts down on the amount of sugar needed and every gardener growing rhubarb should also grow the umbellifer Sweet Cicely as well.
Forced rhubarb, grown in West Yorkshire, took off with the development of the railway system which meant that the London markets could sell a crop that had been harvested within hours.
There are lots of varieties of rhubarb but the following list of readily available ones includes some old favourites and some newer ones. Bear in mind that the colour of the stems changes due to growing conditions. The north of England has the perfect climate - with cooler summers and harder winters - and this makes for redder stems.
'Timperley Early' (early) AGM
So early it’s probably better not to force it. The slender, long pink-red stems have a tart flavour that makes it an excellent crumble filler. Not a prolific cropper - but a must for all rhubarb lovers. Bred by H. Marshland in 1945 (widely available).
'Grandad's Favourite' (mid-season) AGM
Grown and named by Alan Bloom, who always breakfasted on rhubarb and managed to live to 98, this handsome variety (often exhibited on the show bench) also produces a heavy crop of brightly coloured stems with a full flavour (from R. V. Rogers).
'Fulton's Strawberry Surprise' AGM (mid-season to late)
Voted the best flavoured rhubarb in the RHS Wisley trials of 2003. Vivid red stems on a variety that is not too vigorous (exclusively from Thompson & Morgan).
'Raspberry Red' (mid to late-season)
An old Dutch Variety recently reintroduced with sweet red stems. Heavy cropper, for a sunny, open position (from Pennard Plants).
'Queen Victoria' (mid-season to late)
Colourful, strong red stems, easy and prolific. This heritage variety still holds its own today. Vigorous, makes huge clumps, so perhaps not for smaller gardens. Introduced in 1837 by Joseph Myatt. There is also a 'Prince Albert' (1840). ('Queen Victoria' is widely available. Pennard Plants stock 'Prince Albert').
'Hawke's Champagne' AGM (early to mid)
Delicately thin, long, scarlet stems with a sweet flavour from early Spring. An old variety, but easy to grow and ideal for forcing. Attractive to look at (available from Brandy Carr and Pennard Plants).
'Stockbridge Arrow' (late)
Heavy cropper producing suffused-red stems (that are extremely tender) by May. The best of the newer varieties and grown heavily for forcing in Yorkshire (Marshalls).
The technique is to pull and then twist very gently from the lower stem - never cut rhubarb. Harvesting usually stops at the end of May and this allows the plants to recover.
General rhubarb planting and growing tips
- Ideally rhubarb prefers damp summer weather and a dry winter. Mulching (with well-rotted compost or straw) will help to achieve both, but do not cover the crowns deeply.
- Choose an open sunny site.
- When planting, prepare the soil carefully by digging down deeply, working in plenty of farmyard manure or compost as you go.
- Plant in spring, where possible placing new crowns one metre apart with the buds at, or below, the surface.
- Plant in slightly-raised beds if on heavy ground to improve drainage.
- Divide (if needed) between November and March. However in cold gardens division in early March is safer.
- Tidy the rhubarb in autumn so that slugs do not have anywhere to hide.
- Don't pull any stems on newly-planted rhubarb until the second year of growth.
- If a stressed plant should run to seed in late-spring, due to dry and cold conditions, remove the flowering spike straight away. Water, feed and mulch lightly.
- Cover the crown in exposed gardens during winter.
Forcing rhubarb produces pale-pink blanched stems that are much more tender and sweet. This is done commercially in Yorkshire in special warm, dark forcing sheds where the only sound is the popping of the bud sheaths.
Home gardeners can achieve the same conditions by using rugged terracotta forcers. However forcing exhausts the plant, so once you have forced one crown it must be rested for two or three years and allowed to grow way naturally. Some gardeners just discard the crowns they have forced.
If you plant three crowns so that one is recovering from being forced the year before, one is cropping naturally and one is being forced you will be able to have a supply of forced stems every year. However the yield from forced rhubarb is roughly half that of a plant grown outside - usually three pounds.
Forcing can look very stylish if you use hand-thrown terracotta forcers like those from Whichford Pottery (www.whichfordpottery.com). Or you could also use old chimney pots covered with wooden tops, upturned galvanised dustbins packed with straw, or anything else that shuts out the light and forces your rhubarb into premature growth.
Lift and identify the large dome-like buds and, using a spade, split into chunks containing 4-5 buds. Replant in enriched soil containing garden compost, making sure that the top of the clump is just above the ground. Do not pick any stems in the first year or two and always remove any flowering spikes.
Brandy Carr Nurseries - www.brandycarrnurseries.co.uk
Pennard Plants - www.pennardplants.com
Thompson & Morgan - www.thompson-morgan.com
R. V. Roger - www.rvroger.co.uk
Marshalls - www.marshalls-seeds.co.uk
The Natural Gardener by Val Bourne is published by Frances Lincoln at £14.99.
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