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Although this could very well be a picture of me finding a new treasure at a favorite nursery, it's actually an illustration by David Catrow for a children's book called Plantzilla.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rheum palmatum 'Atrosanguineum' A Love/Hate Relationship

Although our relationship is on the rocks, it wasn't always so.

It all started  in 1999 when Shocking Beauty by Thomas Hobbs hit the bookshelves.  While I had admired several ornamental rhubarbs growing at Heronswood, this was the first image of Rheum palmatum 'atrosanguineum' at this colorful stage of development that I'd ever seen.   The beauty of this image effected many people as in the years following the publication, specialty nurseries were well stocked with Rheum palmatums.

I learned that  Rheum palmatum 'atrosanguineum' is quite variable.  Some emerge green and remain that way throughought the growing season, others emerge this beautiful wine color and retain this color on the undersides of their leaves for the remainder of the summer.  I gave up on the plant after growing several that were all green.  Nice plant and all but if I wanted to grow rhubarb, I'd plant one that would make a nice rhubarb crisp or strawberry/rhubarb pie.  

Then one day four or so years ago, at Bainbridge Gardens, I saw a bevy of these plants and one stood out from the crowd.  The undersides of her leaves was a beautiful wine red and beconed me seductively from across the nursery.  She was soon riding in my car, her sweet foliage making it difficult for me to pay attention to the road.  Love.   She stayed in her pot for a few weeks while I restructured a bed just for her to take center stage.  Because these like moisture and are long-lived plants, I dug down a few feet and liberally amended the soil with manure and peat moss.  She seemed happy!   Now, every spring, my heart returns to that warm summer day when we first met when she returns for the season.

Does this look more like an alien brain or like Marge Simpson dyed her hair red?
 
Is this cool or what?
 
 Beauty, shocking or not, can be a fleeting thing.

So, here's what has happened.  The once singular rosette of leaves has become a big woody root with lots of little side shoots.  It probably wants to be dug and separated.  This is what I get for amending the soil so well and adding lots of biosolid fertilizer every year.
 That in itself wouldn't be so bad.  (Have you seen how big these roots get?)  I'll have to go out and slice it apart but am not sure what time of year to do that.  Do you know?  But still, what's not to love about this gorgeous plant, you may be asking yourself.
 
Well friends, it seems that slugs enjoy these leaves as much as I.
 Sluggo helps but  by the middle of summer, these leaves will have become huge and any small hole eaten in a young leaf is amplified.
 
 So what, none of us is perfect, right?  I could overlook this but then there's the other thing.  I mentioned that the leaves get huge, right?  I let the plant bloom and set seed because I find those phases of the plant's development to be quite lovely.  However, after setting seed, the plant, which will have spread about 4-5 feet in all directions, blocking light so that nothing else can grow around it, slowly begins to die back.  The slow death is not particularly pretty and the resulting huge naked spot of soil in my small urban garden looks really horrible in the height of summer when everything around it is so lush and full. Hate!

We're not quite at the point of separation or divorce, but we do need some serious counseling!  Maybe you can help.
 
 
Do you know what I'm doing wrong? Should I cut the flower stalks as soon as they appear? I don't think that water is an issue as the soil has been so well amended but if that's a problem, I can be more liberal with the hose.
Thanks for any advice you can offer to help save this once beautiful relationship.  And don't start with me, it's not just that I admire her youthful beauty but want to toss her aside the moment she gets a little droopy!  The huge blank spot she's left the last couple of summers when she decides that she is sick of me is unbearable. I'd hate to see this end up on the compost heap of dreams.

27 comments:

  1. Very unusual plant. I have that book but haven't tried to grow any of the plants in it although many would probably do well for us.

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    1. Similar hardiness zones but we've got those wet winters.

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  2. My relationship with Rheum palmatum is in it's early days. I moved my plant around a bit at the beginning (our first year together) so a single leaf was all I got. Last year I found a spot I was happy with so it's now starting it's second season in place.

    It's in front of the house in bright sun, non-amended soil, no fertilizer. It got more water last summer than a few other things out front but not as much as say the Gunnera out back did. It powered on all through the long hot summer though, never disappearing, but never getting HUGE either - no blooms. It's back now with a new side shoot. Perhaps indeed you loved her too much?

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    1. I'll try some tough love this year! It only started doing the summer die back after the rosette of leaves became this mass of side shoots. Maybe I'll divide it in the fall or earlier in the spring next year.

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  3. Hmmm. I wish I had some advice, but I don't know enough. But they do say that you should cut the flowers off edible rhubarb, to keep it pumping out leaves and edible stalks, so you might be right about cutting off the flowers. Mine has never flowered, but this may be the year for it. It has that same enormous, bulgy everywhere thing going on. Mine has never melted in the summer either. Yours has the most beautiful red leaves, mine has just the tiniest tinge of red. I'm so jealous.

    If you divide it ever, consider me for an offset. I would be eternally grateful. I might even bake you cookies.

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    1. When we grew edible rhubarb, I always cut the bloom stalks off! A quick web search tells me that fall, winter or early spring, when the plant is dormant is the best time to divide it. We'll see what happens this summer but if division is the only thing that will rejuvinate the plant, I'll definitely be doing that! I only have room for one and it would make me happy to know that the other divisions would go to another garden so I'm more tan happy to give you as many as you want.
      The leaves loose this all red appearance as they mature but retain some of th color on the undersides of the leaves.

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  4. I gave up on mine...finally gave it away. It would grow a few leaves, but then another leaf would wither and die. I think it just didn't like the spot it was in. It would get shade in the morning, then full sun from noon-4 or 5...it would wilt every day...and I finally got sick of it.

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    1. I'm willing to give it a couple more chances. Wait and see this year, divide an conquer next year. If that doesn't work, she'll be up for adoption or composting.

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  5. Sadly, I don't have room for this beauty unless I want to bulldoze the neighbor's house and the fence between us and take over their yard as well as mine. This wouldn't be very neighborly though so I'm forced to enjoy other peoples' plants. (I love Mr. Hobbs' book!)

    However, I would say that after pollination many plants die back so definitely cut the flower stalks off. Perhaps a dose of high nitrogen fertilizer at this point will prompt it to put out new leaves.

    Also dividing in late fall or winter seems most prudent. The other thing you can do if it dies back on you is to get a big focal point pot/urn and place it in a holder that has feet so you can situate it directly above the unsightly roots. This will direct the eye upward to the pot/urn and not down at what was once growing below it. I hope this makes sense.

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    1. Thanks for the advice Grace! Your pot idea is great. I've been throwing pots around in that space and even digging some plnts in, pots and all to be pulled out again when the rheum needs the space. One big pot with feet sounds like a much lovlier idea!

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  6. Well it definitely has a cool factor if nothing else... and a pretty color. But I get your frustration.

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    1. Thanks for sharing my pain; misery loves company and all.

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  7. Mine is the all green version which I would chuck in an instant for one of the red leaved varieties. Unfortunately my experience has been similiar with a leaf dying for every one that grows. Last year the plant all but disappeared so I moved it in the fall. If it doesn't come back I'll look at the opening in the garden as an opportunity to grow something else.

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    1. If mine doesn't shape up this year, I'll divide it and would be happy to send youa division. If noting works, the whole plant wll be looking for a new garden!

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    2. That would be wonderful. Thank you!

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  8. Give it another chance :) we surround ours with metal plant supports before the leaves enlarge so they rest on it and to smother its surroundings. By doing so we are able to grow shade loving ground cover plants on its base.

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    1. What a great idea! Thanks guys, I'll give it one more chance just because of you!

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  9. Peter, I think it passed of the cold weather. I've read about rhubarb: 'In the food it's recommended only young stalks of rhubarb. Long-standing stalks, plucked in the second half of the summer, are less useful, if it's consumed frequently in large quantities, it can be harmful.'

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  10. I have never grown this plant, but love is love, and I think you would miss her terribly if you banished her from your garden. Maybe you could find some late blooming bulbs or some other plant that comes up around that time just to hide her dying days?

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    1. You are such a romantic! I would certainly miss her spring redness and those adorabe crinkly leaves! Love will find a way so I'll find something to fill the emptiness she leaves.

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    2. bulbs, timed right should work ok

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  11. I have had many of these fleeting affairs with plants I happen upon during their five minutes of glory...often even disregarding sage advice trying to steer me right. But what the hey...we are all fools for love.

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  12. because of the die back problem this plant is clearly one for a pot where it will look quite handsome

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  13. I'm in a horticulture course, and this plant has come up in our Plant ID sub course. Our instructor advises to cut it down in late june, to water and feed it, and that it should regrow in days.

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  14. I read that it strongly prefers morning Sun and afternoon shade ESPECIALLY if you are in a zone higher than 7.

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Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I love to hear your thoughts.