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Olly Buckle

The rhubarb myths

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I have been told that rhubarb becomes poisonous in summer, by more than one person. One of them added ‘Something to do with the oxalic acid content I think’. I was pretty sure it was not true, and when I checked none of the reputable sources made any mention of it, but what they all agree on is that one must stop pulling leaves in early summer or it will weaken the plant for next year. It is true, as I know from experience, I try to grow more than I need so I can force some or go on picking into summer, and still have something while that is recovering next year, but it doesn’t seem true.

The plant is bursting with vitality, huge leaves pile over one another, soaking up the sunlight with that bonny appearance that is the bonus from the wheel barrow full of compost that held back the frost. Suddenly I had a vision of a gardener’s wife.

“Look at it, surely a couple or three stalks to flavour an apple pie won’t hurt?”

“Well, actually it will. With such huge leaves three may not seem many, but they will be among the largest and represent about 20% of the photosynthesising surface availability. Pulling a stem means the root will be depleted by making a new leaf to replace it. We have already been doing that, so the roots are already low in food stores, they need all the energy they can get, not a 20% drop followed by a drain. The limited energy available for new growth means replacement leaves are smaller, and produce less. That is made worse by the fact that before they are established midsummer is past and daylight hours decrease. There will not be time to provide all three things needed; to replace what they are taking, to build up enough to over-winter, and to have surplus for a spring picking.”
Now there may be women who would listen carefully to such an argument, suppressing their desire to get on with making an apple and rhubarb pie, taking in the finer details and supplementing them with observations of their own, but I bet there was a gardener once who expected another sort of observation if he said that, so he said,

“No after the middle of June they start getting poisonous, it’s a good job I’m here, you might have poisoned the children.” That got passed on, a myth develops, because whilst it is true that the leaves are poisonous, the stems are not, at any time of year, cooked or raw. Not sure how that myth came about, but remember it had a barrow full of compost tipped over it. Always wash vegetables before eating, my hippy friends who told me how extra nutritious it was eating carrots straight from the ground all got worms.

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