Garden Projects at the Museum
Through the years, one of the fun and interesting garden projects that we have done at the Museum was growing different types of heritage fruit and vegetables. In trying to determine which varieties to grow, we made use of two different British Columbia seed catalogues from early in the 20th century. We had a catalogue from 1923 published by a firm called Brown Brothers Co. Ltd., and we had another seed catalogue published in 1949 by a firm called James Brand Seeds. Both of these companies flourished in Vancouver up until the 1950’s and then they disappeared. However in researching their history, it appears that they were significant contributors to the gardening industry in the lower mainland.
Our choice of vegetable to discuss with today’s email is RHUBARB.
Although classified as a vegetable, Rhubarb is eaten as if it is a fruit – in pies, cobblers, jams/jellies, or compote. In Canada, Rhubarb is a late spring to mid-summer crop and a perennial plant. The size of the root (called a “crown”) determines the success of the growth – the bigger the root structure, then the more shoots will grow, but also the thicker the shoots will be. Normally the shoots are harvested in late spring into early summer. Once the stems have been harvested 2 or 3 times, it is time to stop and let the shoots grow out and to feed the root so that it will have energy for next year’s crop.
Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and requires yearly top dressings of manure. It should be placed in an area of the garden that does not get much traffic but lots of light. There are an estimated 60 to 100 varieties of rhubarb available to grow although many of them are not available in Canada. Canada has 19 known varieties that are grown across the country.
Rhubarb can be grown from seed but is usually propagated by division of the crowns. The issue with growing from seed is that the variability may not be quite what the variety is supposed to be. Research shows that about 1/3 of the seeds will come true to type while the other 2/3 will be somewhat variable and tend towards a common type of rhubarb that shares some of the traits of many different varieties of rhubarb. My research showed that Great Britain had the most varieties of rhubarb available. However it was not possible to purchase many of them since many of them were sold only as crowns and so not allowed to be shipped internationally.
No discussion of rhubarb can happen without mentioning Joseph Myatt, a farmer / plant breeder / businessman from early Victorian England 1771-1855. He popularized the use of rhubarb as a food and dessert item; he bred a large number of varieties of rhubarb. In the 1830’s, he bred the rhubarb known as Victoria (named after Queen Victoria), but he also bred a variety named for her husband (Prince Albert – it is still available today), and he had other varieties named for each of Queen Victoria’s children. Joseph Myatt also bred potatoes and most importantly, strawberries. Indeed the modern eating strawberry that we buy descends from his breeding trials as before he got involved, strawberries were the wild meadow plants with very small fruit. One of his most popular was British Queen, named for Queen Victoria. Since it was known for bearing large fruit, it remained popular up until about 100 years ago.
The Brown Brothers Co Ltd catalogue from 1923 lists the following rhubarbs for sale: Victoria; Myatts’ Linnaeus; Champagne
The James Brand & Co Ltd Seedsmen catalogue lists the following rhubarbs for sale: Victoria
In addition, while working on this project we came across the following rhubarbs:
Glaskins Perpetual; Macdonalds Seedless; Newfoundland Unknown; Canada Red; Strawberry; Strawberry Red; Irish Rhubarb
If the growing conditions are good (lots of manure), this rhubarb will have stalks that are 2 to 3 feet long and quite thick. It generally has a red or green coloured stalk but if cut cross-section, the flesh of the stalk is green. It has been around since 1837 and is named for Queen Victoria. The museum has quite a few clumps of this rhubarb, and it is still available commercially. We do not have the best conditions for growing rhubarb so the stalks do not make it to 2 or 3 feet, but it still is a steady producer.
Nowadays, it is just listed as Linnaeus. After the success of Rhubarb Victoria, Myatt then went on to introduce two other popular rhubarb cultivars, Prince Albert in 1840 and Linnaeus in 1842, the latter named after Carl Linnaeus, the father of plant taxonomy and the man who first introduced rhubarb to Sweden. It is still grown in Britain but it is not available in Canada and no nursery carries seed for this variety.
Of ALL the rhubarbs that we grew over the last 10 years, this variety was unique; it was very different from all the other rhubarbs that we grew. If I had to describe it in two words, I would say, early and feeble. Champagne is supposedly a sweet version of Rhubarb but not really – the acidity is mild compared to other rhubarbs but it will still twist your mouth! What I found was that on a cold miserable February day, everything is dormant in the garden but not Champagne Rhubarb! It would be poking up out of the ground and grow over the next few weeks into April. It would go dormant by June and not be seen again until the following February. In the first two years of cultivation, with such a long period of dormancy, I would dig into the pot to see what had happened to the plant, and find a healthy, dormant root. We no longer have any Champagne rhubarb growing at the Museum. To grow it, we had to get seeds from Great Britain.
This variety was listed in an Ontario seed catalogue from the 1930’s that we had consulted for a different project. Glaskins was bred in Great Britain in the 1920’s and was considered to be a good producer. When we grew it, we found it to be quite vigorous, and it had one interesting trait compared to the other rhubarbs that we grew: the stalks grew almost straight up. We no longer have Glaskins rhubarb growing at the Museum.
This is a variety of Rhubarb that is from Canada! It was bred at the Macdonald College of McGill University in Quebec in the 1920’s. We grew it from seed that was obtained through Seeds of Diversity. Although the name is Macdonalds’ Seedless, it still produces seed stalks and it too had a noticeable upright form of growth. We have 2 or 3 starter clumps of Macdonalds’ Seedless at the museum and are hoping that it will establish itself over the next couple of years.
It is a variety that has been sold by Home Depot for the last several years. It has red stalks that are also red when cross-sectioned. We have one clump at the museum and it has been abused a lot so we're not sure if it will make it.
Strawberry and Strawberry Red
They are probably the same thing but one cannot be sure. We have grown Strawberry rhubarb from seed and have also obtained one root of the plant for growing from a grower in Quebec. The name does not describe the flavour, it indicates the colour of the stalk. We have 2 clumps of Strawberry growing at the Museum and are hoping that it will establish itself over the next couple of years. The Strawberry Red were just added this year, and we still testing it out.
It was obtained from a Newfoundland gardener – he sent us seeds as no live plants can be shipped from Newfoundland into the rest of Canada. He admitted that it is probably Victoria. We grew it from seed a few years ago and unfortunately the young plants were badly damaged at the Museum and did not make it. We have not tried to grow it again.
This was listed in a Vancouver garden shop catalogue from the 1940’s. The name puzzled me as I had never heard of such rhubarb and there was no other name (such as a Latin name) in the catalogue. It turns out that Irish Rhubarb is Gunnera tinctoria, the rather exotic plant with large leaves that is from South America – sometimes called giant rhubarb. It seems that it was introduced into Ireland over 100 years ago for estate gardens and was so invasive in that country that it was given the name “Irish Rhubarb”. The museum has one clump of Gunnera manicata which is supposedly not as invasive but it is struggling so we will see what happens. It is quite gratifying to discover that 70 years ago gardeners in Metro Vancouver were growing such an exotic plant.
Left to Right: Champagne Rhubarb; Macdonald’s Rhubarb; Canada Red Rhubarb; Strawberry Rhubarb
In this photo, Champagne would be the oldest plant with Canada Red the newest. You can see that Champagne offers up a rather feeble set of spears while Macdonald’s being 2 years younger offers a solid set of spears. Quite often Champagne would only yield one set up spears and then give up for the season.
Important factoids about rhubarb:
- The roots of rhubarb are a purgative, and that was the primary use of rhubarb for many years. The leaves are poisonous and should not be eaten. It was only in the last couple of hundred years that the stems were cooked for food.
- In England, they make a summer soup from rhubarb. It is a vegetable soup but the stock is made from rhubarb.
The museum has a question for its readers: How do you eat your rhubarb? Pie? Crisp? Cake? Compote? Jam? Jelly? Soup? Ice Cream? When I was a child, my grandmother prepared rhubarb compote on a regular basis and we ate it for dessert. However, she had a friend who always added cream to her compote. The acidity of the rhubarb would immediately turn the cream to curds. I have never met anyone else who ate their rhubarb like that.