Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb…

25 May

When an old friend runs to seed...

All year, I have been waiting for this moment in my garden – when the eager perennials prove that they have survived another winter and the dilatory perennials reluctantly acknowledge that they too intend to show up again, albeit much later, and stick their shiny green noses up through the smothering sod. There is much rejoicing at the news, but only for two days. The evil Norway Maples that loom over my backyard like halitosis-ridden maths teachers over an ignorant and recalcitrant schoolboy suddenly come into leaf just as the hostas start to yawn and stretch and that is the end of summertime where sunshine is concerned. Not a glimmer of Phoebus in his glory until November – not in my backyard.

This year, however, we have other, more sinister concerns to worry us. Something is seriously up with my rhubarb. This is a legendary crown of rhubarb brought from Scotland in the mid 1800s and cherished by a succession of owners, in which lineage I have the honour to be the fifth. I get three crops a year from my precious patch. A week ago, however, following the incessant rains that (it turns out) were not a precursor of the American Rapture but more like something from a Somerset Maugham short story set in Malaya in 1920, a strange tumescence became apparent. It was very Ridley Scott, very Alien, like something bulging and eager inside a latex membrane on the end of a rhubarb stalk that had grown from another rhubarb stalk…

So what? Well, imagine a new arm grew from your regular, familiar, everyday arm. You’d be freaked out too, no? Even Kafka would admit it was weird.

Day three, the membrane sort of peeled away from the fistlike clump on the end of the stalk and something like a pink and yellow cauliflower was revealed. We have all seen Matango, Attack of the Mushroom People. And we all know how predictable it is that an inexplicable and vigorous vegetal GROWTH coinciding with rumours of the END OF THE WORLD can only be something profoundly dangerous conjured from the mind of some all-powerful human-hating horticulturalist egged on by the ghost of John Wyndham.

I bend closer to look…

“Hey, professor, over here…!”

“What is it, Brad?”

“Some kind of rhubarb flower, I think, though it’s like nothing I’ve ever…”


“Wait! It’s moving! Oh no! Oh, sweet mother of… Nooooooooo…”

We all know what happens next. Brad becomes one of them.

The squirrels (having eaten my rhododendrons) will not go near this throbbing alien lifeform. By night, the racoons huddle like superstitious peasants when they come upon it, crossing themselves and scurrying away.

Yesterday, I stood before it as the sun came up (mankind is always braver as the sun comes up) and called forth whatever entity had possessed my old rhubarb crown. Suddenly, a demonic, ultraviolent gust of wind bowed the maples above me. The sky grew swiftly dark and lowering under charcoal clouds. Carmina Burana was playing in my head… I ran into the house.

I’m off to England tomorrow. Who knows what I will find when I return?



Leave a Reply


  1. Margot Adam

    May 28, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Hi James,

    My gardening expert tells that me that, despite how intriguing they are, these “alien” flower stalks should be CUT RIGHT OFF!
    Letting your rhubarb flower go to seed is a total waste of energy. Rhubarb doesn’t propagate true from seed anyway, only by root cutting. So by allowing it to flower, you’re taking away potential growth of delicious leaf stocks. And, isn’t that the number one priority – harvesting a bumper crop of plump red stalks for pies, cakes and jams, and of course, custard tarts……..

    Kudos on the blog – loving it!


  2. James Chatto

    May 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Margôt,
    Thanks for the sound advice. I have asked the under-gardeners to behead the alien bloom. I know it will improve the edibility of the rhubarb. Pies – yes – and rhubarb fool; various compotes with orange or vanilla or ginger or strawberries; rhubarb syrup to mix into cocktails; a Persian curry of rhubarb and lamb… so much rhubarb, so little time.