Though an old variety, Rhubarb Champagne is one of the best varieties for both experienced and new gardeners, it is easy to grow, reliable and early.
It is a much sought after variety that gives a plentiful yield of long stems outdoors from early May. The long, scarlet stems have a deliciously sweet taste and a flavour described as ‘winey'.
Champagne is an excellent variety for forcing, when it yields tender, sweet young stems from early March.
The harvested stalks are tender, sweet, and a distinctive bright pink in colour with tiny curled yellow leaves that makes forced rhubarb instantly recognisable.
Seed may be planted in autumn or spring. Plants started from seed typically take two years to get a really good harvest, although in the proper climate satisfactory results can be obtained in one growing season.
For the home gardener, rhubarb will tolerate a fair amount of neglect and still thrive, they are very tough plants. You will probably get a mix of plant colours ranging from green through pink with a few plants with red or partly red stems.
When grown as an ornamental, the huge leaves topped with tall stalks of white flowers with a green tinge are quite impressive.
Note - There are a batch of varieties carrying the names ‘Champagne', ‘Hawke's Champagne' or ‘Red Champagne' - they are all very similar to each other.
Sowing: Sow in late winter to spring or late summer to autumn
The seeds are encased in a rather large paper-like shell. Soak the seeds in water for a few hours before planting. Plant the seeds in a peaty mixture or into peat pots to making transplanting them easier and then put them in a sunny window. Rhubarb seeds germinate quickly.
Good garden drainage is essential in growing rhubarb, planting in raised beds helps ensure against rotting of the crowns. Crowns will have longevity of many years, but because of diseases and insects, it is normal to reset a bed after four to five years
For spring sown seedlings, transplant outside when the plants about 3 to 4in tall.
For autumn sown seedlings, plant them outside in early April, as the weather turns warmer. Use a mixture of 50% compost and 50% garden soil. Protect the seedlings from the bright sun. Be careful to not over water it as rhubarb can get root rot if the ground is too wet.
Space 1 metre (36in) apart. Much smaller will seriously crowd the plants, result in a diminished crop and increase the likelihood of spreading disease. A two to three year old plant can easily grow to 1.25m (48in) in diameter and 1m (36in) tall.
Plant the roots with the crown bud 5cm (2in) below the surface of the soil. Dig the hole for the crown extra large and mix composted manure or peat moss with the soil to be placed around the roots. Firm the soil around the roots but keep it loose over the buds. Water and fertilise the crowns after planting.
Remove the flower stalks as they are seen. During the first year of planting, the stalks should not be picked, since food from the leaves is needed to nourish the roots for the next year's growth. A light picking may be taken during the year following planting, following that: the entire plant may be harvested. When harvesting rhubarb, the first step is to cut the stalks at the soil line or simply pull them out individually. All of the stalks of a plant may be harvested at one time, or pulled out selectively over a 4 to 6 week period. After the stalks are cut, the leaves may be removed.
Preparation for the next year:
Rhubarb needs cold to trigger spring growth. Rhubarb tolerates very cold very well, it is hardy to around minus 29°C (-20°F). You don't need to do much, just collect the last few stalks after the first hard frost and throw them on the compost pile and spread a 5cm layer (2in) of compost (or leaves or hay) to prevent winter winds from drying out your roots.
Flowering will reduce the vigour of the plant. The flower and seed stalks should be cut out as soon as they start forming. The plant may still continue to produce the flower stalks so keep cutting. The plants do not become poisonous after flowering starts. The leaves themselves are always poisonous; the leaf stalks can still be cut and used.
Established clumps will have to be trimmed every 4 to 5 years or when the stalks get small and spindly or when the crown is visibly crowded. This will help the plant to keep growing nice thick stems. This is done by digging around and trimming the crown down to 4 or 5 buds. You can also use this opportunity to divide your plant into more plants.
If you haven’t yet tried forced rhubarb, then make it a priority for the forthcoming winter - they're entirely different products. It really is a “gourmet crop” a lot sweeter and more luxurious.
The practice of 'forcing' rhubarb, or growing it in dark conditions, didn't start until the early 19th century when a Chelsea gardener made a chance discovery by leaving a chimney pot over one of his plants. He found that depriving rhubarb of light made the stems shoot upwards, searching for light, which made for a more succulent-tasting product. This forced rhubarb is infinitely more delicate than the outdoor garden variety.
The roots, or crowns, of outdoor rhubarb are left in the fields for two to three years and are then lifted, by hand, from November through to Christmas and replanted into low, dark forcing sheds where they are kept warm and moist as the shoots form. The forcefulness of the shoots is such that you can hear the buds bursting, practically crying out as they strain upwards.
In a matter of a few weeks the rhubarb stalks are ready to be harvested. As with every other stage of this weird and wonderful plant, nothing is, or can be, mechanised. Nimble fingers pick the luscious pink stalks in true Victorian fashion - by candlelight - to protect the younger stems that are still growing. The telltale sign of forced rhubarb is its incredible colour: a particularly eye-pleasing vibrant pink with curled mustard-yellow leaves. The plants grow in the sheds right up to the end of March, when the outdoor variety becomes available.
The 'Wakefield Triangle'
The right kind of soil, readily available coal from local pits needed to heat the forcing sheds, and good transport links all played a part in concentrating the forced rhubarb industry into a small area of West Yorkshire known as the 'Wakefield Triangle' (with Leeds and Bradford forming the other two 'corners').
In their heyday, the West Riding growers, of whom there were nearly 200, would take tons of rhubarb to be carried on the 'rhubarb express' train to cities in the south. Today there are barely 12 growers left. The industry was dealt a severe blow by imported exotic fruit and rhubarb has become too expensive for many to grow.
Yorkshire rhubarb growers feel that it is important that Yorkshire forced rhubarb is distinguished from outdoor rhubarb as well as from imports and have been campaigning for clearer labelling of their rhubarb. Their application for protected name status, along the lines of champagne and parma ham, was approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in July 2007.
The application is currently awaiting a decision by the European Commission and the rhubarb growers should hear whether or not they have been successful by the end of 2008.
How to force rhubarb
1. Start with a small rhubarb rhizome.
2. Put the rhizome in a large pot and cover with soil leaving just the growing bud exposed. Leave this outside in the cold for 3 to 4 weeks. Rhubarb needs to be exposed to several days at freezing temperatures (0°C / 39°F).
3. Bring the pot indoors to a dark and cool (10°C / 50°F) place like a basement or a garage. The rhubarb will grow rather slowly at first while it is growing new roots. After 8 weeks the petiole will be about 20cm (8in) long from the top of the rhizome to the base of the leaf, the rhubarb then starts to pick up speed.
4. Harvest all of the stalks and return the pot to the outdoors for the remainder of the winter. This plant can be re-planted in your garden where it will grow again in the spring.
UPDATE - February 2010 - Awarded Protected Designation of Origin
Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has at long last been awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission, the legal safeguard that protects traditional food and drink.
The PDO award means that only a handful of growers in the ‘rhubarb triangle' between Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds can use the name.
The traditional method of farming involves growing roots in fields for two years, then replanting them in sheds and keeping them in dark, moist conditions for 10 weeks-the lack of light draws energy from the plants' roots. The method was created especially for the soil in that area, and produces sweet, delicate pink rhubarb.
In recent years, it has come under threat, as rhubarb sales have gone down and growers in Holland have imitated the forcing method. There are now only 12 growers remaining in Yorkshire's ‘rhubarb triangle'.
Janet Oldroyd-Hulme, of the Yorkshire Rhubarb Growers' Association, who applied for the PDO status, hopes that it will boost the local industry and guarantee the local farmers' future, as well as encourage more tourists to come and visit the Rhubarb Trail. Environmental Secretary Hilary Benn, who was involved in the campaign, said: ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb has been recognised thanks to the quality of this traditionally grown product and the enthusiasm and commitment shown by all involved.
Yorkshire rhubarb is the 41st British product to join this exclusive list, including Melton Mowbray pork pies, Swaledale cheese, Arbroath smokies, West Country Cheddar, Cornish clotted cream, Stilton and Cornish sardines. Other renowned international products that have PDO status include Champagne and Parma ham.
As an Insect Spray:
Rhubarb leaves, are very poisonous, and can be used to make an effective organic spray that will kill leaf-eating insects in your garden. (cabbage caterpillars, aphids, peach and cherry slug etc) This spray is harmless to bees and breaks down in the soil quickly.
To make the rhubarb spray, boil a few pounds of fresh rhubarb leaves in a few pints of water for 20 minutes. Allow the liquid to cool and strain off the liquor into a container. Dissolve 250gms (4 oz) soap flakes into the mixture while stirring it vigorously. Pour into a spray bottle and apply to infested plants.
The liquid will stain and poison the pot! – so do not use either for anything other than your rhubarb spray. Label both as a reminder!
Cleaning pots and pans:
If your pots and pans are burnt, fear not! An application of rhubarb over the afflicted area will bring back the shine in next to no time. Environmentally friendly too!
This is a fairly strong dye that can create a more golden hair colour for persons whose hair is blond or light brown. Simmer 3 tbsp. of rhubarb root in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes, set aside overnight, and strain. Test on a few strands to determine the effect, then pour through the hair for a rinse.
Natural Dyes and Mordants:
The roots of the rhubarb produce lightfast shades of yellow and orange. They are an important source of dye in Nepal and Tibet.
Tibetans use the liquor from boiled rhubarb leaves as natural mordant that works best with animal fibres. Apparently, a pound of rhubarb leaves can mordant several pounds of fibre.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 700mg Average Seed Count 40 Seeds Common Name English Rhubarb, Garden Rhubarb. Family Polygonaceae Genus Rheum Species rhabarbarum Cultivar Champagne Synonym Rheum rhaponticum, Rheum x hybridum, Rheum cultorum Hardiness Hardy Perennial Time to Sow Sow in late winter/late spring or late summer/autumn. Harvest Remove the flower stalks as they are seen