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How and Why To Use Rhubarb Forcers?

Updated on May 22, 2014

Introducing A Popular Repeat Performer...

One of my favourite repeat performers that is very easy to grow in the vegetable plot is the perennial rhubarb. Commonly treated as fruit, rhubarb is in fact a vegetable and the beauty of this plant is that it is not fussy when it comes to soil type or location as a sunny or partial shade site will do and with a little extra care will provide you with a heavy crop of rhubarb sticks for many years to come with relatively little time or effort on your part.

Which Is The Best Way To Grow Rhubarb?

Now, there are two ways you can grow rhubarb. The ‘sticks’ or stalks can be left to develop naturally in your plot over the year with harvesting usually taking place between April and July, or the plants commonly known as ‘crowns’ can be forced over wintertime to produce an even early crop in January, February or March, but this can only occur if a suitable rhubarb forcer is used.

But why go to the trouble of using a rhubarb forcer when the natural harvesting period is quite long any way? Well, there are 3 main reasons why you would want to use a rhubarb forcer on a regular basis:-

1. For extending the growing season even more from January to July – a 7 month harvesting period is an excellent return for the time and effort invested on your part.

2. Forced rhubarb is sweeter tasting, so does not need any extra sugar to improve the flavour and as a consequence needs less preparation time and effort when cooking.

3. There are hidden health benefits to growing forced rhubarb that are only just being realised in the scientific on to find out more about this!

Traditional Terracotta Rhubarb Forces.
Traditional Terracotta Rhubarb Forces.

How To Force Your Rhubarb Without Exhausting The Plants...

You do this by covering the crowns over in late winter (November or December depending on when you want your rhubarb sticks to be ready, (usually 8 weeks after you have covered your crowns) with terracotta rhubarb forces. Rhubarb forces are pots that are specifically used to keep the plants damp, warm and more importantly in the dark. It is this latter feature that produces the best health benefits of forced rhubarb, as it is the reaction of the plants searching for light that creates the enhanced production of *polyphenols in the stalks or sticks. (For more information about the health benefits of polyphenols in the body, see below).

However you need to be aware that ‘forcing’ takes a lot out of individual plants, so it should only be done every 2 years or so on the same plant or crown. The best way of ensuring a guaranteed yearly ration of forced rhubarb from your plot and therefore in your diet, is to rotate your rhubarb forcer so that each crown gets a turn and then the following year you move on to a fresh one or two crowns. This rotating production regime will also help keep at bay any instances of crown rot or honey funguses which are well known rhubarb diseases.

Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb, A Short History...

The early forcing of rhubarb is not a new concept, it has been practiced in the UK since the early 1800s and one region in particular has become rightly famous for it. The ‘rhubarb triangle’ is an area located between the towns of Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell, in the county of West Yorkshire, England, and has been growing about 90% of the UK’s forced rhubarb since the late 19th century.

But it is only recently, since 2010 in fact, that ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’ has been awarded Protected Designated Origin within the EU. This new status, legally protects the name of the product so that no one is allowed to use or sell the famous name and product of ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’ without it actually having been grown in this specific area of West Yorkshire. After all when you take the trouble to buy an expensive bottle of champagne you want to be sure that the product you purchase actually originates from the Champagne region of France. Well now as a consumer you can have the same buying confidence when you purchase ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’ in the shops, as it will now have to legally come from within the rhubarb triangle as described above to be sold as such in the shops.

More About Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb...

The Health Benefits of Rhubarb...

Although Rhubarb has been traditionally used for centuries as a laxative, it does have some other more remarkable health benefits which are worth knowing about, if you want to include it in your diet.For instance, polyphenols are natural compounds that occur in all plant foods and contribute to the beneficial health effects of vegetables and fruit, but it just so happens that forced rhubarb has more than its fair share of polyphenols!As general guidance, one cup of raw rhubarb contains the following vitamins and nutrients:

  • 9.8mg of vitamin C a powerful antioxidant required for normal growth and development.
  • 14.6mg of Magnesium which helps the body maintain normal muscle and nerve function.
  • 351mg of Potassium an important mineral for the functioning of cells, tissues and organs in the human body.
  • 105 mg of calcium that is essential for healthy bones and teeth.
  • 35.7mcg of vitamin K which is used by the body to help blood clotting.
  • 207mcg of lutein which the body needs to maintain healthy skin and eyes. Lutein also helps to neutralise free radicals, which are the dangerous compounds in the body that can lead to cancer.
  • A cup of raw rhubarb also contains over 40 polyphenol components, of which lycopene and anthocyanins in particular are known to have a very powerful antioxidant effect on the body. Polyphenols and their antioxidant effects promote healthy hearts, eyes, immune system and they also help with the prevention of cancer in the body.
  • Finally, rhubarb is also low in saturated fat and sodium, very low in cholesterol yet it is high in fibre so is a good choice for those wanting to lose weight or generally concerned about their weight.

The Perfect Time For Cooking Rhubarb Is?

In 2010 a laboratory study carried out by Dr Gordon McDougall and his colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University caused a stir in the health world when their research results showed that the antioxidant activity of rhubarb does not decrease with cooking, but in fact does the opposite, increases. They discovered that the levels of some of the polyphenols found in rhubarb actually increased when it coincided with an increase in cooking times. Basically they discovered that baking for 20 minutes provided a rhubarb product with the highest antioxidant capacity and the highest level of anthocyanin. If the baking time was less, then the rhubarb could not release the optimum level of anthocyanin, any more caused the breakdown and deterioration of the released compounds, which defeats the object.

Although it should be noted that this 2010 research study did not directly look into any particular aspect of human health and so no health claims can be substantiated from this piece of research, logic or reason would suggest that if you include more cooked rhubarb in your diet, then you are increasing your intake of the very antioxidants that some scientists believe offer protection from life threatening diseases such as cancer.

Recap: Why Use Rhubarb Forcers?

  1. You can increase your growing season from 4 months to 7 months in a given year.
  2. You can increase the amount of polyphenols in your home-grown rhubarb by using a rhubarb forcer on one or two of your plants.
  3. If you cannot grow rhubarb at home, you can now buy ‘Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb’ in the shops, knowing that the plants have been grown in the very best conditions to get the most polyphenols within the stalks or sticks. (Remember only available in the shops or supermarket between January and March).
  4. You don't need to use as much calorie laden sugar or artificial sweetener on forced rhubarb, because you won’t need it.
  5. Cook it to perfection, by baking or stewing it for 20 minutes exactly so that you get the very best health benefits from your forced rhubarb portions.


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