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Time to talk a load of rhubarb

Matthew Popplewell

Matthew Popplewell

April 8, 2012

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”.

The blood-red stems of rhubarb, (Rheum rhaponticum) sing “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.

Rhubarb can take 6-8 months to grow from a bare-root crown




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.

Chopping up the rhubarb stems. Pull them off the plant, rather than cutting or tearing, for a longer shelf life

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

Combining oats, butter, cinnamon and brown sugar to make the crumble

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.

Top the rhubarb with the other half of the crumble mix

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.

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Sue R
Sue R
11 years ago

Your Rhubarb recipe looks delicious, but I dont see amount of sugar given to add to cold water to make the syrup. Also is the 180 degree oven temp correct? That seems way too low. Just wondering please. I’d like to try this.

Matt Popplewell
Matt Popplewell
10 years ago
Reply to  Sue R

Hi Sue,

My apologies for a slow reply. The sugar is according to taste. I don’t like it too sweet as it can wreck the full flavour of rhubarb. I suggest a tablespoon and a half of sugar. (Brown I think is best). The temp is correct. Its a case of slow and steady wins the race. Too hot and the rhubarb boils over the crumble sides and onto the top. Although of course having no effect on flavour, it doesn’t look as nice. Hope that helps.

10 years ago

Hi Matt, wondering what kind of rhubarb variety you grow and if you have any success in growing it on the sunny coast?. I live in Bargara (near Bundaberg) and would like to try & grow some up here.

Matt Popplewell
Matt Popplewell
10 years ago
Reply to  Amanda

Hi Amanda,

Well, Victoria is the common seed raised variety here. But I am a big fan of using divisions for Rhubarb. Getting late to do it now but finding someone with a decent plant and taking a section of root. You will get fruit a lot quicker than a seed/seedling type. That said, give the seed ago, its fun, rewarding, just don’t be in a hurry for rhubarb. Its growth is slowed down when temps go above 33-34 so find the coolest spot in the garden or it will go dormant. Best wishes, Matt

Selwyn G
Selwyn G
10 years ago

Matthew thank you for taking the time with posting about that elusive plant rhubarb. I have tried twice before here on the bay in SEQ and have put four bare-root crowns in the freezer sometime back ready and am thinking to place them in a more protected area this time away from both wind and harsh sun – is our thinking OK

Matt Popplewell
Matt Popplewell
10 years ago
Reply to  Selwyn G

Hi Selwyn. In my experience rhubarb without question grows better in protected locations. I am yet to grow it well in QLD to be honest but that may well be due to my pre-planting care. They have grown well in the past for me exclusively in morning sun (not after 10), in free draining locations. It does seem odd given the fact they have such incredible leaves that you would expect spells out the need for sun. But then again, there is sun and QLD sun, two very different levels of heat. I have sadly never seen rhubarb stems in supermarkets in QLD that much the girth of the tree trunks I grew in Auckland so don’t be too disappointed if they are a little thin and weedy to start. High P and iron feed and patience the key.

Selwyn G
Selwyn G
10 years ago

Thank you again Matt and we will give it one more go taking note of your thoughts