Rhubarb lovers rejoice as season arrives

Lovers of crumble, fancy gin and sour sweets can rejoice as the first day of the rhubarb season has arrived.

Staff at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire can finally enjoy the fruits of their labours, as April 22 hails the first of the rhubarb harvest.

Clumber is the home of the national rhubarb collection, and is seeing a surge in demand for the plant after it became the hipster flavour of choice.

Perhaps it is best not to dwell on the fact rhubarb was originally used as a laxative when it was first imported to the UK from Asia in the 14th century.

Rhubarb picking
Rhubarb picking

Over the centuries, selective breeding softened the taste and it underwent a bit of a rebrand from 17th century confectioners who coated it in sugar and marketed it as good for digestion.

By the end of the 19th century, there was even a special rhubarb train to transport the crop from Yorkshire to London’s Covent Garden.

Exiting new fruits imported from all over the world during the 20th century saw its popularity wane, but rhubarb is now enjoying a renaissance as nostalgic shoppers opt for traditional flavours.

The rhubarb-flavoured alcohol market is now worth £45 million annually, while demand for the plant for soft drinks has surged 35% in the last 12 months.

Shirley Roberts, senior gardener at Clumber, says: “Rhubarb is now back in fashion and has seen a massive resurgence in recent years with soft drinks, gins and a desire to buy British.”

Rhubarb picking
Rhubarb picking

Food historian Annie Gray says: “I suspect that its return to popularity is in part about the growing market for botanical flavours and more natural products.

“Rhubarb’s long association with health, as well as its strong flavour and nostalgia value through childhood crumbles or rhubarb and custard, means it’s quite a good choice.”

The park’s five-strong team of gardeners will harvest over 100kg from 130 varieties of rhubarb over the next five months, with the help of 57 volunteers.

The team have also had to battle global warming to ensure the collection survives, as rhubarb needs cooler conditions to flourish.

Quick-fingered staff have been removing flower stalks – which are appearing earlier and earlier – to prevent the sticks becoming too bitter.