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A Bea in the Garde: Cotton on to rhubarb's history

Bea Westerberg may be contacted at

Did you survive the great white fluff flood? That would be what I call all the cottonwood seeds and dandelion seeds that seemed to be ready to fly at the same time.

The mixture seemed to stick on anything and everything and Marnie the Cat came in with her whiskers a solid white mat. I don't know if she picked them up from the air or if she was grazing the grass to accomplish that look. It did not seem to be a problem for her which was surprising since she never wants me to even touch her whiskers.

How did last Saturday and Sunday's cool weather fit into your life? The weekend before was way too hot and humid for me and I did the vegetable thing inside the house with the air conditioning set to 75 degrees. I did not go anyplace or need any suntan lotion.

Perhaps a good number of you were almost freezing this weekend, but I was roaring around outside even with the occasional rain drops falling. I almost got all my flowers planted out and got to use the brand new electric weed whip.

As the friends that eat out with me say, "If Bea is comfortable, everyone else is freezing." That means I get to sit next to the cool air blowing or in the shade and enjoying my meal. Perhaps with 365 days a year we all get turns to be happy with the weather at different times.

First fruit

The rhubarb is going crazy so now is the time to enjoy what is usually considered the first fruit of the year in our part of the world. It's also known as "pie plant" by many because it was the first of many summer fruit pies to come.

If you want to impress at the next cocktail party, the official name of rhubarb is Rheum officinale Baillon and is considered an undemanding perennial vegetable. It is a member of the same family as buckwheat, knotweed and sorrel.

Rhubarb has a very interesting background and just like the dandelion we talked about a few weeks back, you may never look at rhubarb again without thinking of its royal background. History shows that it dates back to at least 2700 B.C. in China. It was mainly a medicinal purgative and to this day the Chinese variety is considered one of the best for this purpose and is the base of most Chinese medicine. The rhizome (root) was the part of the plant that was used for this purpose.

In the mid 1700s, China got ticked off at Russia and said that no tea or rhubarb were to be allowed into that country. A bit later the same edict was issued to the English queen. The English and Chinese were busy with the opium wars and at that time it is said that rhubarb was more valuable than opium. In fact, some scholars say it should have been called the "Rhubarb Wars" rather than the Opium Wars.

The Chinese had been the main suppliers of rhubarb for centuries so it had become known in all the European and Russian countries but was not widely grown. The edict changed everything and soon everyone was trying to grow rhubarb. It became so popular to grow that some people had rhubarb plantations and passed them on to family members.

Some of the roots did make it to the new country in late 1700s and a Maine gardener is credited with making that happen.

Medicine was still the main use of rhubarb but the "discovery" of a sweetener for those bitter petioles, the above-ground stems that we eat these days, changed the whole ball game into mainly a food use in almost every country but China. Ah, that sugar is sure good stuff for so many uses!

Grow your own

Growing your own rhubarb is the most common way to get rhubarb in this part of the world but it is becoming more common at farm markets and grocery stores. It also works to be good friends with a rhubarb grower!

You will need well prepared soil with good drainage and a sunny place for the rhubarb to thrive. The plants are easy to divide but don't harvest the first year after they have been transplanted.

I am going to issue more of my "always." Always pull the blooms that shoot up as soon as you see them. They are producing seed but you do not need to let the plants put their energy into doing that as they do the very best by root division.

Always discard and do not consider eating the leaves. The leaves are NOT GOOD for you and can result in serious or deadly results if eaten.

A major big thing in Rhubarb Land is this question: Can you harvest after June? It used to be generally thought you might even die if you ate the stems but today most information will tell you that they are safe to eat beyond that date. The main thing is that they run out of "ump" about the time it gets hot with less rainfall.

We kind of get tired of rhubarb this and rhubarb that and it seems all OK to go on to other upcoming fruits. You need to water and fertilize to keep the plants going and pick to keep them young.