Mariel, dark eyes smiling, would watch our two children from her bathroom window that overlooked our small yard and garden.
They were pink-cheeked youngsters then, playing among the morning glories growing up strings over the back porch, one with blonde curls, the other red.
Mariel and Charlie never had kids of their own. Spent a lifetime farming before retiring in town to a new brick bungalow.
There was rhubarb in their backyard, what remained from that they had planted there, hanging on, spindly stalks near the foot of a fat, soft maple, along our mutual property line.
We spoke of our experience of the plant. Charlie, in his suspenders, no-press work pants and shirt, said to take some, there was plenty to spare.
That was at our first house, more of a cottage really.
We fenced the yard, painted the 1940s siding and replaced the roof over the course of four or five years. Mariel watched from her window as the children arrived and grew.
She baked cookies for us a time or two. Working with Charlie, she maintained a neat household.
It was Charlie’s weekly duty to transport the small amount of refuse the couple generated to the road for pickup. He’d perform the task on Sunday afternoons, one end of string attached to the bottom edge of a battered metal trash can, the other to his one good leg.
With a wooden cane in one gnarled, brown hand, he’d make his way to the end of the paved drive at a shuffling half pace and then back again, the can to be retrieved the next day by the same method.
Charlie wasn’t a particularly big man, something less than six feet, and so his weight came as a surprise.
Mariel had called. Charlie had fallen. He wanted up from the floor to the sofa. I remember his eyes yet, seeking dignity.
It was early the next spring that we moved from the floodplain neighbourhood, to higher ground across the river.
Some of Charlie’s rhubarb came with us.
Rhubarb may be propagated by dividing existing plants at a time when they’re beginning to emerge. Simply use a spade to dig into the middle of a plant, to remove a portion of the root.
There was much more sunlight in the new location. The root sections were planted about three feet apart and a year later, following the necessary establishment period, we were amply rewarded. Rhubarb requires rich, well-drained soil – or a sufficient amount of commercial fertilizer – to yield well.
Over the next two or three years the patch was expanded in the same fashion. It wasn’t long though, however, before the spindly-stalk appearance of the plants returned.
I came upon the remedy during a backroad excursion that took me through the rural municipality of South West Oxford. During a brief stop for baked goods, I noticed a striking patch of rhubarb to which a few inches of horse manure had recently been applied.
This was evidently a small commercial patch supporting the sales of pies and other goods. For our own purposes back home, I’ve found a yearly or twice-yearly application of a bit of compost works well, providing enough of a biological boost to maintain more than a sufficient supply through spring and well into summer’s heat.
Rhubarb is a vegetable that eats like a fruit. Consume only the stalks. The leaves are mildly toxic, essentially inedible.
We make pies, crumble, jam and even a beverage (a combination of rhubarb, orange juice and ginger ale) with the plant but the first taste of the season begins with a straightforward elixir, stewed rhubarb.
It was my maternal grandmother who taught me the proper method.
Chop your rhubarb into one-inch lengths and place in a pot. Add enough water to cover the bottom of the pot and heat gradually to the simmering point.
Above all, go slowly. If you reach a rolling boil, you’ll end up with rhubarb pulp rather than chucks of rhubarb that are tender but retain a modicum of firmness.
From there, add sugar or another sweetener to taste.
I prefer stewed rhubarb that’s been refrigerated for a few hours
but it can be consumed warm.
The vegetable is reputedly good
for the digestive system, supports weight loss and contains a good supply of many minerals and nutrients.
It’s best prepared when freshly picked. It can, however, be easily frozen. Just cut into chunks and spread on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, the chucks can be transferred into jars or plastic containers and stored for up to a year. ◊