Rhubarb ... is it a vegetable, a fruit or maybe a fregetable?
Rheum hybridum is best described as a rhizomatus, herbaceous, perennial vegetable with edible, tart stems that can be sweetened and served as a delicious dessert with custard or cream.
Rhubarb has a long history dating back nearly 3000 years when it was mainly used medicinally for 'stomach ails'.
Luther Burbank the acclaimed plant hybridiser (1849-1926) through selective breeding raised the profile of this insignificant plant into a global marketing sensation when he bred 'Crimson Winter'.
The uniformity of size, bright red stems with no stringing and the excellent strawberry/raspberry flavour made it at the time one of the most desirable varieties ever grown.
Only the stems of rhubarb are eaten as the leaves are poisonous, containing oxalic acid.
The choice among rhubarb varieties is seemingly endless when it comes to growth habits and production of the edible stems, which range in colours of green, pink and red, with the consistency of celery varying considerably.
Varieties worth growing include 'Wandon Red' a vigorous all-rounder, 'Sydney Crimson' a winter variety, 'Victoria' and 'Ruby Red Legs'.
Rhubarb is a gross feeder so the beds should be well prepared with aged compost as well as an all-round fertiliser, dug in, a few weeks before planting.
Full sun to part shade, planted one to 1.5 metres apart in well-drained, fertile soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5 are the ideal growing conditions.
Dig a hole large enough to comfortably hold the root mass then plant the crown at soil surface.
Cover the roots and water in gently.
Do not plant too deep as rotting of the crown may occur and cause the death of the plant.
A newly-planted rhubarb crown can sometimes struggle to produce a good crop of stems so it is best to wait until the second season before harvesting.
To pick grab the base of the stalk and with a gentle twist pull it away from the plant. Leave at least two stalks per plant to ensure continued production.
Established rhubarb plants can be fertilised in early spring and early autumn.
Rhubarb is also a thirsty plant and needs to be kept moist to continue producing good stems, especially during the peak growing season.
When watering apply at the base of the plant, avoid directly over the leaves and stems.
Productivity starts to decrease after four or five years so it is best to lift and divide plants and replant into a new position in the garden.
Dig up the plants in winter and cut them into pieces, each having at least one or two strong buds and a substantial piece of root.
Each division is planted with the top of the bud at ground level.
Firm the soil around each piece to make sure of good contact between the piece of root and the soil.
Water in gently with a liquid fertiliser.
Remove flower buds when noticed to stop the plants making seed as this diverts energy away from stalk production.
If you have never grown rhubarb, before invest in a couple of potted plants from your local plant supplier and I am sure you won't be disappointed.
June 15: Australian Plants Society Tasmania meeting, Max Fry Hall, Gorge Road, Trevallyn, 7.30pm. Mark Wapstra will speak on native ferns.
June 16: Launceston Horticultural Society meeting at Windmill Hill Hall, High Street, 7.30pm Amarlie and Lesley Crowden of Kaydale Lodge are the guest speakers.
Daily: Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden, Burnie from 9am to 4pm. Closed Christmas Day and Good Friday. Tea room between 9.30am to 4pm.
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