Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rhubarb (Rheum sp.)

     A few years ago I had a bit of a medical problem which led to my bladder being prone to infections. I was on a number of drugs for the condition and it was under control, except for a more than normal need to urinate. This was good news for the compost heap but a definite negative in other ways. For example, we went down to Maldon, in Essex, for a wedding and were staying in the house of a friend. In the middle of the night I got the pressing need and got up to take care of it. Bear in mind I was in a strange bedroom and disorientated. The cocktail of drugs didn't help, either, together with being still three-quarters asleep, and I opened a door under the impression it was the bathroom. Luckily, my wife woke up just as I disappeared into the wardrobe ready to severely disillusion anyone returning from Narnia, and pointed me towards the actual bathroom. This was fortuitous, otherwise we'd never have been asked back.

      Soon after this episode, we went on a trip to Yorkshire. We'd already had to stop a couple of times at services but the feeling came on during a long stretch of the M62 where the distance between services had the potential to turn discomfort into tragedy. Anyway, my wife was driving and I'd had the forethought to put a bottle on the back seat for such emergencies, so I scrambled into the rear and put it to good use. It crossed my mind that I could start a cult along similar lines to  the Mile High Club, this time for peeing into a milk bottle while going at great speed along motorways. Thinking such cultural thoughts and lulled with the bliss of relief, I became aware that it had gone suddenly darker. I thought at first that maybe we were having a eclipse, but glancing up showed me that the cause was the Bullocks coach which had drawn level. An interested audience of pensioners was ogling me from their circle seats. However I couldn't stop, so I pacified myself by giving them a weak grin and rather limp Hitler salute with my other hand, all the time hoping to God that we didn't bump into them again somewhere. It struck me that it was alright for them, there'd be a toilet on board their bus and I maliciously hoped that it was blocked. A further comfort was the thought that, should we come across the Bullocks coach parked anywhere, I could easily change the 'u' to an 'o' with a black marker. That'd teach 'em.

      This brought to mind the time that we had an event (I think it was a cycle race) in Wythenshawe Park. The park toilets were grossly inadequate for a large crowd, so we'd hired mobile loos and dotted them round a central area. Unwisely, we left them overnight and in the morning all that was left was a series of burnt out hulks. The local vandals had discovered that a burning lavatory gives far more pyrotechnic satisfaction than a bog standard (pardon the pun) firework. Fortunately they'd had the forethought to make sure no one was in them before applying the match. If anyone had been, no doubt their bowel movement would have progressed satisfactorily but this would have been poor compensation for being burnt to a cinder.

      Rhubarb also has a reputation for encouraging healthy movements. It is such an easy crop that anyone can grow it with a high potential for success. Not only is the stem good in crumbles, pies and other desserts, but the leaves extend its use in other directions: an old bloke on our allotment recommended boiling them in water, then using the resulting liquid to clean algi off greenhouse glass. I've not tried this but the logic is there - rhubarb leaves have a high oxalic acid content and this has corrosive properties. Garden Organic (used to be known as the Henry Doubleday Research Institute) give the following recipe for controlling aphids: boil 3 pounds of leaves in 6 pints of water for half an hour, strain through muslin or an old stocking then dilute with water to rhubarb at quantities of 5:1. Some added soapflakes will help it spread and stick more effectively.

      Originally from Siberia, edible rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum) finds the British climate a soft touch by comparison. When I first heard of the rhubarb triangle I thought it must be related to the Bermuda one, with mysterious disappearances taking place on the vegetable plot. However it turns out to be much more mundane, referring to an area in Yorkshire where Wakefield , Morley and Rothwell form the angles encompassing the main rhubarb growing area. They probably get a lot of Christmas cards from the custard industry.
Purpose made forcing pots with removable tops for observation
      Forcing rhubarb is a way of getting an early crop. The plant should first be given a year without being picked in order to establish (this also applies with normal cropping), then in the second year it is covered with a large pot, or black plastic, just as it begins to grow. The principle is that a plant needs light to grow and photosynthesise: place it in the dark and it automatically grows upwards towards where it perceives the light should be. This can be seen when you wrongly position something like a pelargonium in a dark corner of the living room and it produces leggy, unattractive growth as it strives upwards. By forcing, the crop can be obtained a month or more earlier and is less tart. This takes a lot out of the plant and it should be rested the following year in order to recover. An even earlier crop can be attained by lifting the plant in November, leaving on the soil surface to receive the frosting which breaks down the tendency for dormancy, then taking into a cool greenhouse or shed and covering. Where this is done commercially the cropped plant is usually then destined for the compost heap.

      Some forms of rhubarb provide sculptural interest in the garden. Like its culinary relative, it needs deep, moist, humus rich soil and benefits from an annual top dressing of well-rotted organic material. Especially effective near water, it can be a Gunnera substitute for the smaller pond, being more compatible in scale. A variety like Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb) can produce red flowers up to a height of 8 feet.

      So, as you can see, rhubarb is pretty versatile and so easy to grow it really is worth giving it a bash.


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