Rhubarb is one of the most popular plants in the kitchen garden. With everbearing rhubarb you have the opportunity to enjoy a fresh harvest until October. Here is how the special varieties came into being.
Rhubarb usually forms its pink stalks in early summer – around the same time that strawberries ripen. The cut-off date for the end of the rhubarb harvest has always been St. John’s Day on June 24. However, fall rhubarb like ‘Livingstone’ offer a much longer harvest period: as early as mid-April throughout the summer and into the fall. ‘Livingstone’ can be harvested as early as the first year because the variety grows so vigorously.
In conventional varieties, an internal clock ensures that growth stops after the summer solstice. The everbearing rhubarb, on the contrary, continues to form new shoots and even gives the highest yields in the fall. This allows the vegetable to be combined in a completely new culinary way – instead of strawberries, creations are made with fresh apricots, cherries, plums. The fact that garden owners can enjoy the continuous harvest of rhubarb is anything but self-evident. The history of autumn rhubarb is marked by ups and downs and leads once around the globe.
The history of autumn rhubarb begins in Australia
Autumn rhubarb is by no means an invention of our modern age. As early as 1890, a certain Mr. Topp from Buninyong, Australia, introduced ‘Topp’s Winter Rhubarb’, which spread rapidly, especially in Australia and New Zealand. In the climate there, the rhubarb took a break from growth during the hot, dry summer. The autumn rains revived it, which still allowed a late harvest. The use of irrigation systems in the early 20th century made it possible to bridge the dry period and harvest for months.
The first varieties emerged in California
The passionate American plant breeder Luther Burbank, who was almost a star in plant breeding at the turn of the last century but one, became aware of the rhubarb novelty from Down Under. After two failed attempts, he managed to get hold of some rhizomes in 1892. He planted these out in his native Santa Rosa, California, got them to flower, sowed the seeds, selected and repeated the process several times. In 1900, he finally introduced ‘Crimson Winter Rhubarb’ to the market as a never-seen-before absolute novelty.
Burbank was apparently a tricky marketing professional by then. He celebrated his triumph and couldn’t help taking a few side swipes at his competitors. In 1910, he wrote, “Everybody is laboring to grow rhubarb a day or two earlier than other varieties. My new ‘Crimson Winter Rhubarb’ gives a full yield six months earlier than any other rhubarb.” If you count back six months from April, you end up in November. In the California climate, it’s quite possible that a crop was still yielding at that time.
The trail gets lost in England
We like to marvel at and berate globalization today, but it existed in the plant breeding world 100 years ago. Both the ‘Topp’s Winter Rhubarb’ and the ‘Crimson Winter Rhubarb’ soon came to Europe and started their triumphal procession in England. Here, probably the largest rhubarb growing area in the world had developed in the second half of the 19th century: the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ in West Yorkshire. Nurseries offered the ‘Topp’s Winter Rhubarb’ in 1900 for the first time also for the home garden. After that, the trail of the miracle stalk is lost.
Autumn rhubarb for the home garden
It stands to reason that the recent emergence of fall rhubarb cultivars is due to the 100+ year history of intercontinental rhubarb transfers. It is likely that some cultivars or their descendants have survived in private or public rhubarb collections and have now simply been rediscovered.
The fact that fall rhubarb is regaining popularity today, especially in home gardens, is related to the desire for freshness and the conscious decision not to preserve. It’s about the desire to be able to harvest the sweet and sour vegetable permanently directly from one’s own garden.