The Great Rhubarb Experiment: 3.5 years on

Inspired by a comment on the original article, here is an update on our Great Rhubarb Experiment.  In a word (okay, two words) , it is an astonishing success.  We continue to trial new varieties.   In the photo above, Crimson Sunrise is the plant in front  on the far right. while Red Surprise and Ebony are elsewhere in the yard.  But for all of us, Tina’s Noble continues to be the huge, vigorous standout.  It has now grown continuously for three and half years, slowing down in only the very hottest part of the summer but never going entirely dormant and coming back better than ever with the winter rains.   You can see in this photo that my original plant has developed three different heads (probably not the  correct term) and will need to be divided when I can figure out the appropriate time.

For sweetness and tenderness, however, Success is my favorite.   (It is the two plants on the front left in the top photo, the smaller just planted this year).  It tends to flourish at different times of year from the Tina’s Noble.  As a result we are all harvesting at least six to nine months out of twelve.

At this point, we haven’t ordered new seeds and therefore will probably not be offering anything other than plants thinned from our gardens.  Since seedlings are always iffy (just beyond my massive Tina’s Noble plant is one that is not doing as well) growing from divisions will probably yield more reliable plants in the future.

The Great Rhubarb Experiment: Progress Report

Since we got a question about this, I thought I should let interested readers know how we are doing.  At least four of us have been successfully growing various combinations of the seeds from Australia and England.  One other experimenter had no luck with germination and yet another hasn’t started her seeds yet.  Of course, so far we haven’t been through an entire calendar year, so we still have no idea if these plants will be perennial for us.  But I can say that the Tina’s Noble seeds from French Harvest in Australia has made absolutely beautiful plants, as you can see.  These — sown last July and put out into the garden in September — are easily up to  my waist.

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!!



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