If you go down to Chartwell today, you’re in for a pleasant surprise! At the bottom of the entrance path you’ll find our first example of the strange, beautiful monsters seen in the picture above. Gunnera manaicata, or Giant Rhubarb as it is is sometimes confusingly called, are relatively common in large gardens in the UK today, but you’d be hard pushed to find as impressive a display as here in the gardens at Chartwell. Although they’re not anywhere near their full size for the year yet, I personally love this stage when they are just emerging from their Winter slumber. The young leaves are a lovely, lime green and are held proud by the young, thick stalks while you can also get a peak at the pinkish, unusual flower spikes at this time of the year too. When they are fully grown they will tower above many of our visitors but now is the perfect time to get up close and personal with this bizarre gentle giant. Once they mature, the thousands of tiny spikes on the stem and leaf underside make them slightly less interactive!
Found naturally in South America from Columbia to Brazil, G. manicata is one of the World’s largest herbaceous perennial plants and can grow up to 2 and a half metres in height, with each clump sometimes reaching 3 to 4 metres across. They prefer a moist site with humus-rich soil on a site in full sun or partial shade. So tough are these beasts, that they are almost immune to any pests or diseases found in this country, which makes life much easier for us gardeners when looking after them! Although the RHS states that they are borderline fully hardy, we have never had any problems here at Chartwell in keeping them going from year to year. We do however cover the crowns with the huge old leaves which we cut down in late Autumn each year to give them that extra protection against the frosts.
First introduced into Europe in the 1860s, it was botanist J.J. Linden who originally named them. In the wild they are used by indigenous people as shelter due to the size and thickness of their many leaves. Although fertile in the UK, Gunnera manicata has rarely been found self sown and is scarcely naturalized. Once established they are sometimes considered invasive and are therefore listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act as an offence to allow them to grow in the wild. Instead you can come to Chartwell at any time and marvel for yourselves at these magnificent monsters…