Rhubarb in Australia

Its history as seen by a 4th generation Australian rhubarb breeder/grower.

Rhubarb [Rheum x hybridum] came to Australia from England with the first free settlers, and was well established by 1840. Many English varieties were imported into Australia, but as was the norm then, all were winter deciduous and the petioles were almost all green, perhaps tinged with a little pink. Until 1890 all culinary rhubarb worldwide was winter deciduous, when an Australian market gardener [Mr Topp of Bendigo Victoria] bred an evergreen variety and called it "Topp's Winter". Within a few short years it was established in New Zealand, from where it was distributed worldwide. [This is well documented elsewhere] Breeding progressed very slowly, with the better clones being jealously guarded by the local farmers, as this plant was justifiably called "The mortgage breaker". By WW1 [1914-1918] good red petioled, perennial, summer types were readily available. Winter types were still green petioled. By 1930 three states, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria were going their separate ways with rhubarb breeding. "Sydney Crimson" from New South Wales was the pick of the crop. Reddish green it grew well and could be picked all year round. Came WW11 and rhubarb was in huge demand, for as Napoleon Bonaparte said "C'est la soupe qui fait le soldat" or "An army marches on its stomach". And our generals added "And rhubarb keeps em regular". The demand was enormous, no time for breeding, just growing. The war ended, and rhubarb sales collapsed. Rhubarb sales stagnated and once productive rhubarb farms were taken over for housing for the returning soldiers. Rare clones were lost forever. Somewhere in the 1940s or 1950s a clone appeared at Mt Tamborine Queensland, which was an enormous breakthrough in rhubarb breeding. Stunning red petioles from top to bottom grew all year round, easy to grow, tasted great, what a rhubarb! But it was a closed shop; they kept it to themselves. It slowly spread from farm to farm in Queensland, with each farmer keeping slightly different clones, but it never spread interstate. We in Victoria developed some splendid vigorous red petioled clones which grew all year round, along with winter types which stood up to our harshest, coldest, windiest conditions [strong winds, frosts, and cold, including light snow]. Rhubarb sales slowly increased, with supermarkets giving increased shelf space to this produce, and organic Farmers Markets gaining in popularity.

The year 2000 and CLIMATE CHANGE, with intense drought in Victoria and New South Wales, the southern states. Mt Tamborine in Queensland, with its magnificent rhubarb clones, changed from a temperate climate to a hot, humid, sweaty, tropical climate, with endless summer rain and millions of sap sucking disease spreading insects. Huge rhubarb farms just succumbed to this, and the farmers gave up and switched crops, and their stunning rhubarb was lost, well almost. For in 2010 I mounted an expedition to Mt Tamborine. In neglected corners of old farms, back yards, at organic hobby farms, a few different clones of this magnificent plant were discovered. They now grow happily and safely at my farm. These will be used for breeding, but at the moment its difficult to see how I can improve on some of these magnificent clones. But time will tell.

Postscript. My father, known as "Rex the Rhubarb King", (a large scale rhubarb farmer from about 1935 to 1960) when asked is rhubarb a fruit or a vegetable, he always replied - "Neither, rhubarb is rhubarb".


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