Rhubarb grows very well in the Orkney Islands and as you drive around the islands in late spring and summer, you will see it growing in gardens, on the roadside and even on the cliff edge.
In the little courtyard between our house and its collection of outbuildings, is a simply enormous rhubarb patch. Planted and tended by generations of one Orcadian family and forgotten for the last two decades, as the house sat empty and neglected.
We were delighted when we found it and have eaten our fill of it. The Wrens and wagtails have hopped amongst its huge spreading leaves, finding plenty of insects to feed to their broods. I had great results making dye, from the roots of it. A yellow/orange on its own and a pink when used with an alkaline modifier.
That would already be enough to earn its place in my garden, but this summer, I have discovered that it is also wonderful for natural cordage and basketry.
By peeling the rhubarb when it is freshly cut, you can get lovely long lengths of it. If you have any difficulty peeling the outer layer away from the main stem, use a flat bladed knife to peel down the length of the stem.
You may find that some of the juicy fleshy parts of the stem come away too. It’s important to remove these for the best drying results, so carefully scrape down the peelings between a blunt knife and your thumb.
Spread out the peelings and leave them to dry. They will dry in a day if left out in the sunshine, but if the weather is damp or windy, they will only take 2-3 days in a well ventilated area.
I have made simple drying racks, by stretching linen scrim over old wooden frames and these work perfectly for rhubarb peelings.
Once dry, the rhubarb can be made into cordage or used for coil and twined baskets. I found that it was very similar to raffia palm and although it’s almost transparent, it is very strong.
Be sure to take some deep breaths of that wonderful rhubarb scent as you are working with it!
Using some dried grass core material, I used my rhubarb peelings to create this coil basket. It was a joy to work with and collecting and preparing rhubarb in this way, will become a part of my seasonal rhythm for years to come.
Rhubarb isn’t the only thing that’s been growing in abundance in our garden. We have had masses of white clover, growing in swathes amongst the other wild flowers and grasses.
In one sheltered spot, it has grown really tall and I could’t resist trying out those long stems for basketry.
I began by gathering the longest stems and splitting them down the length with my thumb nail. Opening out the stem, I then used my nail again to scrap away the pith, which is easily done.
Finally, I split each stem into three or four lengths and popped them on a rack to dry.
Once dry, I used the clover in a small coil experiment. It is not as strong as some other materials and I did experience some snapping, but I managed to work it up into a nice coil. I found that it was particularly good for making cordage.
A word of warning here though, for those of you admiring these beautiful green images. although the clover stems dry out enough to use quite quickly, they only retain their colour for a few weeks. At this point they fade to white.
It’s not a colour that I often find, so I think I will gather more next year, but our house renovations are taking priority as we quickly approach autumn and winter, so my gatherings have had to be scaled down.
I have a feeling that the dried clover stems would take dye well, so that is another thing to try out at a later date.
Nature provides us with so many materials, we just need to take the time to try, and learn about all that the plants around us have to offer.