The First Bounty

 

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“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I call her Liz for short – dead people are such good sports about nicknames. The words of that famous poem make me wonder if Liz grew rhubarb in her garden; so many aspects of rhubarb make it lovable and worthy of such poetic gushing.

Why is rhubarb wonderful? It’s as if the ancestor of today’s rhubarb asked itself, “What are all the things I can do to make a gardener’s life as easy as possible?” How can anyone not love a plant with that kind of consideration? Goodness knows, there are plenty of plants that think the exact opposite. Morning glory asks, “How can I take over the entire garden and smother all other vegetation in it? How can I evade every effort and exertion of that pathetic human to banish me from this land?” Such thoughts would never sully the mind of a rhubarb. Indeed, I wonder if it blushes red with botanical embarrassment being surrounded on all sides by bullies like dandelions and wimps like tomatoes.

One wonderful thing about rhubarb is its perennial nature. It’s not one of those here-today-gone-tomorrow annual plants that must be re-seeded every year, then coaxed to sprout and grow. Thirty years ago, a friend gave me a couple of eyes from his rhubarb plant, and I dug two small holes, tossed in some compost, and bunged in the eyes. Those youngsters settled into my soil, laid an underground network of rhizomes, and have flourished ever since.

That’s given me 29 years of zero planting effort. Only my fruit and nut trees can compete with such a number because they already existed before I moved in. The trees, though, need annual pruning of their branches. The rhubarb? Pruning? Never! Its leaves die back and melt into the ground every autumn. No fuss, no muss, no work.

The rhubarb plant lies demurely dormant through the first part of winter, or so it seems on the surface. Underground, it is gathering the troops for an early assault. Here, near the mouth of the Fraser River, early means February. That’s when, be there snow, frost, or waterlogged ground, the bright red buds push up and announce themselves ready to take on the new year and any vagaries of weather. Think about it. While the timid tomatoes demand 18 to 29 degrees Celsius (65 to 85 Fahrenheit) or else they shall swoon, the rhubarb starts thundering along in freezing temperatures.

The next wonderful aspect of rhubarb is its toxic nature. You may have heard that its leaves are poisonous. Perhaps you shrank at the idea, but actually, the toxins are pure gold to the gardener. Slugs, snails, and rabbits will avoid the plant, leaving its leaves to grow broad and its stems to grow thick. (A short pause, while I rub my hands together with glee over the hearty stems.)

Rhubarb is considerate about its timing, too. No doubt it pondered, “Let me see. When would the gardener have the most time available to pick and preserve my bounty. Certainly not September when all the laggard crops come crashing into harvest, each on the heels of the other. Summer is not a good option, either, because there is so much weeding, and the bush beans and chard need to be labouriously picked and processed.” So, the kind rhubarb decided on spring, before the warm weather crops need to be planted, and after the early crops have been set out. With such consideration, if rhubarb were a human, we’d all want to marry it.

Even the harvest is easy for rhubarb. Unlike the bush beans, where I have to scrunch down and poke and pry under every leaf in search of the right-sized pods, I simply saunter up to the rhubarb patch, eyeball the bigger leaves and stems, and tug them off at the base. Snik, snik, I cut off the leaf and butt of each stem, and stack the stems on one big leaf, the easier to carry the results into the kitchen. In a matter of minutes, it’s done.

In the kitchen, I wash the stems, chop them into short segments, and dump the segments into several large pots. As I add the chopped bits, I sprinkle them with sugar. The sugar makes the segments weep liquid into the bottom of the pot, and that’s plenty for cooking. I put the covered pots on a low heat, and walk away…but not too far. It’s quick to cook and quick to preserve in canning jars. When you think about it, rhubarb wouldn’t dream of making demands in the kitchen. It is the quickest of all the fruits in my canning chart.

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In summary, I proffer a list of the glories of rhubarb: it is easy, easy, easy, and easy.

O, rhubarb! “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height My soul can reach.” Yes, I’m certain of it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning must have had rhubarb in her garden.

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