Rhubarb, tulips, and handsome thugs.

OK, thugs to the fore (they’re dangerous).  Just back from Lincolnshire with a couple of dozen plants I HAD to have, there’s the current problem of where to plant them.  Perhaps it’s just me, but surely every garden has at least a bit that has become ‘thugland’ – a place where some plant you once thought a lovely innocent has quietly and efficiently strangled every single one of its competitors?  The Borders garden has rather a number of thuglands – swards of undistinguished epimediums, or dentarias, or astroemerias.  As garden overlords, we have managed to get some thugs extinguished early – Ligularia przewalskii (such a lovely thing), or Petasites dentata (it was once just a tiny few leaves in a pot).  But two plants were more circumspect in their movements:  Anemone x hybrida, so lovely in autumn, and the ravishing shuttlecock fern (Matteucia struthiopteris)

The tiny garden up by the house, and around the top pond (well, it’s just big enough to bath in if one didn’t mind the leeches), was, as of yesterday, mostly ferns and anemones where once there had been quite a rich flora of irises, hostas, other good ferns, primulas, double Ranunculus ficaria in different colours… Well, why go on?

Alec had already cleared one part of it during the winter, but this blankness, amazingly, filled up almost immediately with other plants desperate for a home.  His work generated piles of shuttlecock stumps, and piles of six inch lengths of anemone root.

I’m not good at throwing beautiful plants away.  I don’t mind composting ones I’ve come round to hating (dentarias, epimediums, as above, even Anemone x hybrida), but shuttlecock ferns?  I can’t.  I simply can’t. They are so beautiful.  They’re apparently under threat in their native lands (overcollecting of the edible croziers of spring).  But what to do with a barrow-load?  After much thought, I had plans for selling them on ebay, but those Italian trips put paid to that.

Dumped in plastic sacks, they were forgotten until a week ago, when I thought I’d compost them after all.  It’s just that when I tipped the sacks out, each trunk was sprouting away quite happily.  Not a single death.  Blast.  Some I couldn’t help but pot up.  Then compost ran out.  Then pots.  Then time.

But yesterday, being a decent day, I attacked the rest of the patch.  I hadn’t realised how many more that would generate.   I think the shuttlecock isn’t a thug through and through.  At least the stolons stay pretty much near the surface of the soil.  But the anemones…  The roots go vertically downwards, far past the reach of a single dig of the spade.  Pull back the spade to lift them, and I could hear the roots snap, leaving a yard?, a furlong?, of root still in the ground.  These, like those of dock and dandelion, have enough stored energy to regrow a stalk that finds the light and, presto, another anemone.  Where they are in my garden, the roots have got underneath the flagstone path, between the huge retaining stones, even underneath the cottage. However, by yesterday evening, at least I ccould see bare soil, though what really galls me is the muddy labels that the clearing has revealed – a sad tale of the vanquished.

I must try to stop it happening again; where Alec cleared already has a few shoots appearing between the narcissus… and I’ve been out with the spray.

As to the piles of plants accumulating down in ‘the ruin’, I circularised the village, offering ferns, anemone, oh, and hemerocallises, and other bits and pieces.  All for free.  I should probably have charged, for recipients, keen not to appear greedy (or perhaps just reluctant), took a wee bit of Matteucia, a tiny sprout of daylily, and so on.  I wanted them to take sackfuls!  Possibly I might fill a wheelbarrow, leave it out on the village green with a big label say ‘All good plants – free to a good home’.  Alternatively, I might just row them out in the kitcheny bit of ‘the wood’, and use them as a crop.  Even the daylilies, being Kwanso Flore Pleno at the moment (there are others to come), might go there too.  The flowers are edible – their veggie name, in Chinese, is ‘flower of forgetfullness’, which, considering my age, might not be useful.

Today, though, is ‘driech’ – a lovely Scots word that means grey, sullen, cold, windy, wet, the sort of day that gets into your bones.  It can also be used to describe people – the sort of folk whose cup is about three quarters empty, and chipped to boot.  So, it’s been computery day, trying to get my ‘oeuvre’ into Kindle.  Another good Scots word for someone who can’t shut up – a ‘blaw’.  OK, if you ever have time, have a look at thistlestreetbooks.co.uk.


So lovely.  Some even become more magnificent as the die; huge petals in all sorts of subtle if morbid shades – bruised reds, blotched purple, weird oranges.  The flowers often open wide, petals in dissaray, ravaged by time.  However, I’ve just found a tulip I hate as it decays.  The one I photographed and showed you on here: Perestroyka.  It’s gone horrid bleached pinks, washed out oranges, like something that has been in the water too long.  Yuk.  I thought I would keep the bulbs and cherish them.  No way.

RHUBARB:  Huge, greedy, a thug.  I tried to get it to share its bed with a greengage trees, but the tree didn’t last a season.  As it’s in a south facing corner of ‘the ruin’, I am determined to get something along the south facing wall to its north.  The only thing I had to hand was one of the new blackberry varieties, flowers double and pink, spineless stems, and reasonably good fruit.  Yesterday, with sun, I notice that it was drooping, and the rhubarb was looking magnificent.  And what is it about that amazing taste, one that makes ones taste buds orgasmically happy?

I can’t resist putting in a bit of rhubarb’s history, from a forthcoming Kindle:

Rheum rhabarbarum LINNAEUS
Origin: probably China

All rather a mistake really, for the plants first brought to Europe
in the sixteenth century as an important medicinal herb turned
out to be the wrong species. The correct one (Rheum palmatum)
was eventually brought here in the eighteenth century, but it has
long dropped out of use (though sometimes seen as a decorative),
while the first comer is now found in almost every garden.

A plant called ‘rheum’ or ‘rhabarbarum’ was known to the
Greeks, probably as dried roots imported from southern Russia
or China. Dioscorides used it for chest, stomach and liver com-
plaints as well as ringworm (76). The ancient Chinese used it too,
though a herbal of 27oo BC suggests its use only as a laxative

By the sixteenth century, at least in western Europe, it had
become known as a cure for the two main venereal diseases (the
most serious a recent import), and large quantities of the root
were imported via Izmir (76, 93). Two ounces of dried root and
half an ounce of parsley were boiled in two quarts of Water, and
the solution then reduced by two-thirds. The resultant bitter
drink was taken several times a day (76).

However, the truly officinal species are R. officinalis and R.
palmatum, but the plants brought out of China, either via Goa in
1535 or direct from China in the following century, were of
another species that we now all know and love. Its inability to
offer either a cure for disease or a laxative was early recognized;
Gerard called it the ‘bastard rhubard’. It became used as a
pot-herb, though it seems to have been the leaves that were used –
sharp-tasting, like sorrel (66). Presumably they were used in
small quantities, for a friend of Gerard’s tried to cure an unwary
butcher’s boy who had an ague. Four leaves of the herb ‘wrought
extremely downwards and upwards within an hower after, and
never ceased until night. In the end, the strength of the boie
overcame the force of the phisicke.’ No doubt he survived, even if
still with his ague. Herbalists who stuck to the book and used the
dried and imported root used it against ‘Wamblings of the gut’,
convulsions and cramps, sciatica, ‘Yeoring’ and mange, and to
cleanse ‘the bodie from pale and wan spots (or the Morphew),. _ _
and bloody fire’ (26).

At the end of the eighteenth century, the root’s main property
seems to have been as a laxative, and the value of the imports was
estimated at £200,000 a year. However, seeds of the officinal
species reached London from Russia in 1762, and the Society for
the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce began
to encourage cultivation.

In 1791 Sir William Fordyce was awarded a gold medal by the Society for planting out three hundred rhubarb plants, and later prizewinners planted up to a
thousand (57, 76). The roots were kiln-dried, though they were
found by various hospitals to be slightly less effective than the
imported material. As a bonus, it was also found that the roots
could be made to yield a fine red dye, which, before the advent of
synthetic dyes, had been a very expensive colour to produce.

However, by the time that landowners were winning gold
medals, Rheum rhabarbarum was already being forced for the
London fruit markets, the petioles being used for early spring
desserts. The discovery that the leaf stalks were delicious to eat,
and did not have any unfortunate effect on the innards, seems to
have taken place in France in the eighteenth century, though
French cooks did produce a rhubarb marmelade in which the
stalks were cooked in honey (66) – used as a very mild laxative –
and which might suggest an earlier, and pre-cane-sugar, date.


About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! www.david-stuart.co.uk or, more fun, have a look at www.pinterest.com/davidcstuart
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