The How-To Of Rhubarb



It is not clear where or what is the origin of Rhubarb. There are mentions of Rhubarb in China going back to 2,700 BC, however Rhubarb was also found on the banks of the Volga.

Whatever Rhubarb’s source; the plant was used during the times of plague being a most potent drug with purgative qualities.

It was Marco Polo who is the person credited for bringing the plant to Europe. The first Rhubarb grown in England was in Banbury Oxfordshire.

My own history of Rhubarb is picking it with my granddad in his garden in the early ’40s. I have never known a garden without it.

Why Grow Rhubarb:

Rhubarb has many secrets and below is a list of a few of them:

Rich in calcium, vitamin A, K, C and B complex vitamins, potassium, manganese, antioxidants like lycopene and anthocyanin. Many other vitamins and minerals that help to keep us all in precious good health.

Because of Vitamin A, eating Rhubarb is very good for you eyes.

Helps keep your bones and teeth strong because of the calcium content.

Like Aloe Vera, Rhubarb helps support a strong immune system.

Rhubarb is good for your heart, being low in fat and calories.

Its potassium content means eating Rhubarb helps to prevent high blood pressure.

Rhubarb is most well known for preventing constipation.

Because one of the lowest caloric crops in the world, it is very useful for people struggling to lose weight.

Words of Warning:

Because of the vigorous nature of Rhubarb you should abstain from eating it if you have a kidney condition.

Do not eat or consume the leaves because they have high levels of oxalic acid.

If you every come across the Chinese variety, do not eat it because it is poisons. In the middle ages the Chinese used it to kill people, by making tea with it and invite they ‘friends’ around for afternoon and cake.

The only Chinese variety that I know of in Europe are in Edinburgh and Oxford Botanical Gardens. Neither of them have tea shops, by the way.

Rhubarb’s Place In The Garden:

Probably one of the most neglected plants in the whole of the garden. Which in my view is a shame for treated right it can feed you from the end of February right through till the first frost.

The reason for the bad treatment of Rhubarb is because of the fact that it will grow almost anywhere and therefore it is not given the right amount of care to ensure a production of a first class crop.

Rhubarb’s Place In the Rotation:

Although the common sorts of Rhubarb can grow and flourish on cold clays, growers recognizes that the earlier crops and the best flavored summer stems are grown on good loamy soil that has been well fed with organic manure.

When you make your Rhubarb bed, be aware that given the right treatment and soil, the plant can grow for fifteen years.

Planting a Rhubarb Bed:

New beds of Rhubarb are made in March on soil that has been deep dug and generally speaking, is in an open position.

Place the Rhubarb a yard apart each way. Also try to ensure that there is no more then three “eyes” on each root. Firm the soil down around the plant and if the weather is dry at the time of planting, water.

It is a good idea to spread some compost mulch around the plant however do not do it right above the growing tip

It is important to keep the bed clear of weeds and remove flower stalks in advance growth.

Growing from Seed:

Considering Rhubarb is so easy to grow from seeds it is surprising that not many people use this method. The seeds may be sown in a seed box or pot during March and allowed to germinate in a cold frame.

The young plants can then be planted out in open ground towards the end of April.

Another method is to wait until mid-April and then grow the seeds in the open ground.

What is very important with the growing of Rhubarb is that you do not harvest during the first season.

One reason for growing Rhubarb with seeds is: if yourare looking for a rare variety that can only be found in another country and it has to be sent in the post. Much eaiser to use seeds.

Forcing Rhubarb:

The forcing of well-established Rhubarb roots is quite easily done by covering strong crowns with bottomless boxes or large pots and surrounding these coverings with mild organic material.

The best time to start forcing your Rhubarb is in January to get the best results.

Clean up the plant first, by weeding and removing any dead leaves from around the crown.

Outside forced Rhubarb should take around 8 week.

If you have a heated glasshouse, another method is to lift the roots and to place in semi-darkness near the heat source. Surrounded with a little leafy soil and water every now and then with warm water.

The Rhubarb rapidly produce edible stems. Only do this once in the life of a root. This method of forcing Rhubarb should take about 6 weeks for harvesting.


The main disease of Rhubarb is root rot. The base of the stems become swollen and distorted. The leaves turn a puce colour. The crowns of the plant usually go soft and rot.

The way to control this is to dig up and burn and replant in another part of the garden.

Rhubarb does not like water. I lost all mine one year, when the River Thames flooded my allotment plot for eight weeks one winter.

Harvesting Rhubarb:

Do not harvest in the first year and in the case of Rhubarb grown from seed. Do not harvest for the first two years.

Never cut Rhubarb with a knife. What you do is pull steadily from the base whilst at the same time twisting slightly.

My outside Rhubarb produces stems from around May till August. This will of always depend on the year. Hot/cold, wet/dry.

Be aware that the leaves are poisonous to eat, however they can be used quite safely on the compost or as a mulch.


Some of the best varieties of Rhubarb are:

Livingstone: This is a bit of a special Rhubarb because it is an autumn-cropping which can be harvested from September till the first frost.

Timperley: One of the earliest varieties and very good for forcing. Not partially sweet however you can make your neighbors jealous by pulling Rhubarb at the end of February or very early March.

Victoria: This is the most widely grown varieties with an earthy sweet flavour.

You can buy these at DT Brown and Mr Fothergill’s. Both of these are UK companies.

How I use Rhubarb:

I just strew and eat Rhubarb near enough every day of the year: Fresh when I can and frozen from my deep freeze the rest of the time.

Of course, for those of you that wish you can make: Jam, pickle, tarts etc.

No shortage of recipes on the internet.

An interesting use of Rhubarb, which I use, is to take the discarded leaves and boil them, let the ” tea” cool, sieve and pour over your cabbages.

By doing this, you stop butterflies laying their eggs all over your crop. They cannot stand the smell and go somewhere else.

So grow well and enjoy your Rhubarb, and take the challenge and grow Rhubarb every month of the year.

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