Get inspired produce your own natural remedies

Monday, March 1st, 2010
It's logical that what goes around must, in time, come around. This is certainly so in the case of ‘natural remedies', ‘botanical medicine', ‘medical herbalism', ‘herbal medicine', ‘herbology' and ‘medicinal horticulture'.

The medicinal properties of some plants we use in conventional pharmaceuticals today were known to our ancestors hundreds - sometimes thousands - of years ago. Today new drugs undergo years' of trials before a licence is issued yet, apparently, our forefathers tested the efficacy and safety of plant extracts using far simpler techniques.

We can all grow ‘helpful' plants that produce well tried health benefits - even if the garden is only courtyard size or consists of a balcony or window-box. And the good news is that one plant claimed to afford multiple benefits is particularly easy to grow - and it can be planted right now: Rhubarb.

Purgative Properties

Rhubarb was in use in China for its purgative properties at least 2,500BC - and the esteemed Ancient Greek pharmacologist Discorides made use of the plant for the same purpose. So important a plant did Rhubarb become that, in 1759, the Chinese threatened to withhold export as a bargaining tool in relation to a border dispute with Russia. It was used to ‘bargain' in later ‘incidents' with Western countries and, in 1839, an imperial commissioner, tasked with ending the opium trade, wrote to Queen Victoria to the effect that the ‘foreign barbarians surely would die if they could not obtain tea and rhubarb from China' and that, for this reason, the Queen should stop wicked British merchants from trading in opium. Maybe Victoria was not amused because the letter appears not to have been translated! Later that same year the British merchants, issued with a similar threat, responded with cannon balls. (It's possible this was the first exchange in the Opium War!)

Varying Success

At various times - with varying success - Rhubarb has been used in the treatment of constipation, jaundice, gastro-intestinal disorders, menstrual problems, conjunctivitis, trauma injuries, ulcers - and applied externally - burns. Rhubarb is said to ‘clear the blood' and ‘improve the colon' - however, most practitioners suggest that it should be avoided by anyone suffering from arthritis.

Rhubarb really is easy to grow - with one proviso: growing it from seed can be very difficult and for that reason it is much better to purchase ‘crowns' from a good garden centre or nursery. Rhubarb dies off late in the year and is very ‘tidy', disappearing underground to reappear early the next year. It can be planted in large pots and is decorative planted among flowers in borders. When space allows, it's worth allocating an entire bed because the colours and flavours of different varieties - and their cropping periods - vary considerably.

Although preferring neutral soil, Rhubarb grows almost anywhere - but one point to watch: once planted, it really does not take to being moved around! For this reason, it is important to give location due consideration before planting. (Most location problems relate to the fact that Rhubarb leaves are large - and the space afforded the plant is insufficient.) The ground must be well prepared and weed-free. Crowns should be planted (handle them gently) so that the tops are about an inch below the surface with approximately 3 feet between plants.

‘Forced' rhubarb is delicious! It's regarded as a delicacy in big London stores - Harrod's Food Hall for one - because it is so tender and sweet. And there is no need to remove the outer skin before cooking! ‘Forced' Rhubarb is generally very expensive to buy yet it is incredibly easy to facilitate. Simply place one of the attractive forcing pots over the Rhubarb immediately the crown begins to grow - a month or less after planting - or save money by using a large old bucket or similar container. Growth will be encouraged by the lack of light and warming effect created by the forcing pot and, in about three to four weeks', some luscious Rhubarb will be ready to harvest. Pull out the entire stalk - but be careful not to disturb the surrounding stems.

Anyone wanting encouragement to start their own kitchen garden should consider visiting the college's Broadview Gardens (01732 853211). Comprising ten acres of inspirational ornamental gardens, they are open to the public free of charge 360 days of the year. Head for the Suttons Garden: set up by the college in 2008 to undertake trials and innovative growing techniques for the Devon-based plant and seed specialists, it is a delightful traditional-style kitchen garden. What is actually growing at any given time very much depends on the experiments being undertaken for Suttons - but it always includes wide ranges of fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Be inspired!

Hadlow offers a wide range of career (including degree) and recreational courses for horticulturists and gardeners. Telephone: 0500 551434 for information

Rhubarb Breakfast Muesli

serves 3-4.

1 ½ lb of rhubarb cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons of honey
1-inch fresh ginger - grated
¼ pint of freshly squeezed orange juice

Put all together in saucepan and simmer until rhubarb is cooked.

Muesli Topping

6oz of organic rolled oats
3oz of dark muscovado dark sugar
2oz of chopped almonds
2oz raisins
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
3oz of chopped dates

Sprinkle topping over cooked rhubarb and top with low fat natural yoghurt

Recipe devised by Karen Thomas - Hadlow College Broadview Tearoom.