No matter where you decide to place your own roots in life, as well as that of the plants that remain life long friends and companions, there are some that are always going to struggle with adaptations to location and climate difference. Some are going to grumble, before becoming a crumble…. Rhubarb is just that.
Having grown up in the fickle climate of western England, no more majestic can be the blood red stems and umbrella sized leaves of the love or hate it Rheum rhaponticum. It sits in the shady damp corner of the garden singing “desserts for you”.
As it withers and fades to a soggy mess of nothing through the winter months before bringing out the best in the joys of springs, as it bright pink stems rise like sky scrapers from the terracotta pot that forces them free. From nothing, we watch engaged for a couple of months as the swamping green canopy evolves from these stems stretching out its unwanted oxalic acid through its deep green plumage.
So why am I talking rhubarb you ask? Well, it’s a battle here in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. The intensity of the sun and humidity sends it huddling for cover and the custard is turning cold as I wait for the rhubarb to come good. I love gardening battles. Isn’t the most rewarding aspect in gardening challenges in growing a stubborn beast successfully? Combing it out of its misery and reliving the glory days. I remember that 2 metre beast that all but covered up the two days of the British summer sun and dwarfed everything in sight. So how can I get it right here in Queensland?
To be true to type, rhubarb has to come from cuttings, not seed, as the varieties all have slightly different characteristics. Some varieties have redder stalks than others, varying from a cherry to a blood red. The red colour is often controlled by the use of certain fertilisers. The redder varieties tend to be the summer producers.
Rhubarb has a very unique flavour, but you need the right variety at the right time of the year, when it is in peak production, for the best flavour, as out of season the flavour does change. Rhubarb particularly thrives on animal manures such as our chook manure, but it will also grow well on blends of good artificial fertilisers. I love the Apex range. It’s mother’s milk to most things green I think.
Rhubarb is a very hardy plant although will not tolerate frosts. It is not bothered by pests – snails have a go at the leaves, but it hardly matters as they end up in the compost heap. During harvesting, some varieties are easier to break from the plant than others, and as my dear grandfather always said “Never cut off or snap! Pull, pull!”. It is important to keep the ends on the stalks, as this will produce a longer shelf life. If they’re broken, they go off. Every five to eight years the crowns are broken up and divided so we always have good, fresh produce.
Rhubarb takes about six to eight months to grow from a bare root crown to the harvest stage, although rhubarb has a long harvesting period. A good crop produces up to five times a season and should give between five and seven bunches each harvest.
Rhubarb is an incredibly versatile vegetable, providing all manner of sweet and savoury dishes, wines and preserves. Nothing, yes, nothing surpasses the greatest dessert ever made. Rhubarb crumble. Here is my Grandmother’s recipe and photos showing us making it over the weekend.
4 chopped rhubarb stems
1¼ cups flour, 1 cup oats
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1¼ cups packed brown sugar
½ cup melted butter
Chop up the rhubarb stems. Mix together the flour, oats, cinnamon, brown sugar and melted butter. Then add and press one-half of crumb mixture into a buttered baking dish.
Add the sugar to a cup cold water and microwave until thick, clear, and bubbly, approximately 3-5 minutes, then add the chopped rhubarb to the crumb mixture in the baking dish. Pour sugar sauce evenly over the rhubarb. Top with the remaining crumb mixture.
Bake at 180 degrees until edges are bubbling and crumb topping is browned, about 30-40 minutes:
The stems used were my first crop. Grown in a pot in the shade, it’s no wondrous work of art yet, but ever hopeful that stems will sprout and the custard whisker will begin to hum.