The rhubarb chronicle: short and minced

ON every hand the crocus, the snowdrop, and the effulgent daffodil are considered bright harbingers of spring, but the exuberance of rhubarb is hardly matched by other vernal virtuosos. One day there is a but-tonlike protuberance daring the derringdo of reluctant April, and then the next there is a waving plenty for a juicy pie that endears itself in all directions and proves to the jaded palate that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Some people don't like rhubarb. That's too bad. Long years ago my grandfather had a patch of succulent rhubarb by his hog pen, abaft the barn, and when he wanted to extend his barn in that direction he had to sacrifice his rhubarb. This was well before my joyous time. He took up a few roots and made a new rhubarb bed astern of the house, by the sink-spout. You can take a root of rhubarb and mince it, and every jot and tittle will throw sprouts, so it took but few roots to start his new bed.

He thus had a great surplus of rhubarb roots left over, and after they laid around for a time he took them up in the far pasture. He plowed a furrow the whole width of the pasture, from the line of one Reuben Small to the opposite line of one Niles Littlehale - a matter of perhaps a half mile - and after he laid his roots one by one in the furrow, he went along and kicked the stile back over them with his foot. In this way he started an auxiliary bed of rhubarb from east to west which proliferated and replenished the earth. He never used more than he could gather by his sinkspout, so this pasture asset flourished in idle indolence.

Rhubarb, in farm parlance, is a great ``feeder,'' which is why it should be planted by hog pens and sinkspouts, whereas a Maine pasture of those days was always the tag end of the farm where a few cows might find enough grass between rocks to tide them over to a good supper at the barn. Accordingly, my grandfather's row of rhubarb flared up with typical enthusiasm, and then it found the soil deficient in goodies and it began a decline.

By the time I came along, the plants had lost all vigor and vitality and not one leaf in the whole row ever got bigger than that of a dogtooth violet. Except that my grandfather showed me, I'd never have known the residual lackluster went with rhubarb. The cows had kept the grass, so-called, chewed off, and as no cow was ever known to care for rhubarb, the puny rhubarb leaves were in plain sight - each on the end of a toothpick-size stem.

Then it came my turn, and when the old farmhouse burned on a July night, the lush rhubarb patch by the sinkspout was lost, along with everything else. When we had our logs milled and began putting up a new house, the bulldozer included the very spot of that rhubarb patch in its efforts, and by that time sinkspouts were no longer de rigueur anyway. We had a new home and no rhubarb patch for the festivities of winter's demise.

We had acquired some Dutch bulbs, and the next spring we were gloriously encircled by snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils, and they did what they could, but there was no snatch of luxuriant pieplant to lift the spirit and make glad the heart, and I had to suffer the unspeakable humility of going to a neighbor to beg some rhubarb so we might have the essential pie. At the same time I remembered my grandfather's abandoned row of rhubarb up in the pasture, and since I hadn't thought of it for some years, I wondered if it lingered.

It did, but a good many of the plants had given up and no longer bothered to send their tiny shoots through the sod and attempt their little leaves. I needed only a trowel to take up enough of those weary roots to start a new bed near the house. I found fewer than a pailful, but that was enough.

I prepared the bed well, in a place that could be permanent, and as I tucked each sad little root into the soil I patted it gently and wished it well. I did think of ol' Gramp somewhat while I was doing this, and of the good times we'd had together, and the closest I could come by a pure guess, it was some 60 years since he'd plowed that pasture furrow and put those rhubarb roots aside for me - just like a legacy in the bank.

Every little root sprouted, and as I had provided adequate encouragement, we had all the rhubarb we needed the next spring - and every spring since. When we sold the farm and moved to tidewater for leisurely aging, I brought a root of rhubarb root. Every spring as the snow recedes and the frigid arctic influence mellows, my rhubarb bursts the ground and leaps up shouting in wild ecstacy to make me a pie and gladden me all over. Beauty is where you find it, and the rhubarb tells me daffodils, crocuses, and perky snowdrops are great, but poor for pies.

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