The Great Rhubarb Experiment is On!

As a transplanted New Englander, I have always mourned the fact that rhubarb — one of my favorite fruits (well, actually a vegetable but who’s counting?) — cannot be grown as a perennial here in sunny SoCal.  We just don’t get the required chill .  Nonetheless, I knew that over a hundred years ago, Luther  Burbank  — with his typical patience and rigor — developed several varieties that did exactly that.   You can read his research here.  And you can see a breathless description from the Los Angeles Herald of 1904 right here.

Moreover, per an article by David Karp in the March 15, 2013 LA Times: “Farmers harvested rhubarb in winter and spring in coastal Southern California on close to 1,000 acres in the early 1920s…. California’s rhubarb plantings reached 1,323 acres in the 1930 census.”

Well, I thought, I needed to get my hands on some of those Burbank rhubarbs!  Alas, I soon discovered, I couldn’t.  They were gone.

Per Dale Marshall, retired USDA ARS rhubarb researcher: “In response to mixed opinions on the subject of what kind of rhubarb can be grown in Southern California – yes, it grew well until about 1990.

This rhubarb resulted from Luther Burbank’s selections from New Zealand starting in about 1893. He created ‘Crimson Winter’ and later, ‘Burbank Giant’ and ‘New Giant Crimson Winter’.

These great cultivars were grown until about the 1980’s by the Cleugh family. Another man bought the brand name and roots but was bought out in 1992 and the fields became industrial properties with virtually all the roots being destroyed. Such a shame!”

Arggh!  But we Rare Fruit Growers are not easily daunted.  The New Zealand reference was a Very Big Clue.  I began hunting for the Kiwi  Topps’ Winter Rhubarb  — said to be the variety that launched Burbank’s research — but that also seems to have vanished from the earth.

Further Googling, however, took me to the site of French Harvest and the Clayton family in Melbourne, Australia which has been in the rhubarb business for a very long time .   They sell several varieties they’ve developed that they  promised would grow year-round in a Mediterranean climate.  Well,  hey, that’s us!  The game was on.

I quickly  obtained a collection of seeds to trial:  Tina’s NobleSuccess and Ruby Red (a compact variety good for containers);  and managed to persuade several of our more dedicated chapter propagators to try them out in their very different microclimates.   We are also trialing Glaskin’s Perpetual, first grown in Brighton, England in the 1920s since the British began their experiments with Australian rhubarb about the same time as Burbank  and for the price of a $3 packet of seeds, it seemed worth taking a chance.

I still, however, have some seeds, especially of the compact Ruby Red variety and if any of you who prefer to garden in containers would like to take a stab I would be glad to make them available (Chapter members only, please).

I  may also have some Success seedlings since more of those plants came up than I have room for but at the moment, they have just emerged and I have to keep my fingers crossed I won’t kill them off before they’re big enough to transplant.  Stay tuned!!



16 Replies to “The Great Rhubarb Experiment is On!”

    1. Well, of the various seeds several of us started, it seems Tina’s Noble (from the Claytons in Melbourne, Australia) has been a standout. Charles Portney has already eaten some of us and a few of my plants are just enormous. Since we still haven’t gone through a summer, however, we don’t know if this will actually be a perennial for us or dwindle away due to lack of chill. Stay tuned.

  1. I have half a dozen glaskins perpetual seedlings started this summer here in Bakersfield, Ca. Despite an unusually hot summer with triple digit heat most days, they’ve done well in full shade,

  2. Just wanted to say that you can still grow Rhubarb as a perennial if you live by the coast. I had two Victoria Rhubarb plants that produced so much rhubarb year round that I actually decided to get rid of it as it was taking up too much space in my small community garden plot. Many neighbors do grow it.

      1. Tricia, we do not grow Victoria but you can get it any virtually any nursery. We have found it vastly inferior to the plants we are now growing from Australian seeds.

  3. Hi!

    Have there been any updates regarding the rhubarb seedlings? I’m growing Victoria, Kangarhu, and Glaskin’s Perpetuals. I’d love more varieties that are supposedly better suited for Mediterranean climates.


    1. Anthony, the rhubarb project has been a wild success. At this point, we can highly recommend Tina’s Noble, Next Generation and Success whose seeds we obtained from French Harvest in Australia. We will be selling plants of the first two at least at our next plant sale in December.

  4. I am very interested in container gardening.. being a lady in my 70’s..(: I grew up on a farm with my grandparents in NE PA. I would love to try growing Rhubarb.. would you have any Seeds? TY Laura Douglas Staszewski.

    1. Laura, at the moment we don’t have any seeds suitable for container gardening though apparently Ruby Red is considered small enough to do well in a pot (the others we are trialing are too vigorous. You can get the Ruby Red seeds from French Harvest in Australia.

  5. Hi, do you know where I could get some plants of the varieties you specify to try in Northern California?



  6. Hello,

    I just discovered this article and noticed that it’s been about a year since there’s been an update. Are things still going well? I’ve successfully grown rhubarb as an annual in Burbank, but it’s never come back. I’d love to have a perennial plant. You mentioned a plant sale last December. Is it happening again?

    1. Yes, as I mentioned above, our rhubarb continues to get bigger and better. We did have plants on sale at our annual holiday sale last December but since we haven’t ordered new seed, the only way we will be offering more plants is when our original ones get big enough to divide. My original Tina’s Noble has definitely reached that stage but I’m still trying to figure out the appropriate season for it. Stay tuned.

  7. I’d love an update on your rhubarb experiments. I’ve been unsuccessful with overwintering here in Santa Barbara Chapter ( currently in hibernation after Covid).

    1. You are right! It is time for an update. My rhubarb and that of several of my members is all doing great. I will try to get something up this week.

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