Plant stories: Rhubarb

This is the time of year that southern hemisphere gardeners are getting ready for their rhubarb plants to start springing back into action.

But did you know that rhubarb is a vegetable, a close relative of garden sorrel, and both are members of the buckwheat family? (And we know not to eat the poisonous leaves, don’t we?)

The Rhubarb Compendium website is a fascinating read and lists many species of rhubarb, which originated from China, Tibet and Siberia. See the list here.

Rheum officinale was cultivated for its rhizome which was taken in autumn from plants at least 6 years old, dried and used in Chinese medicine. “When taken internally in small doses, rhubarb acts as an astringent tonic to the digestive system, when taken larger doses rhubarb acts as a very mild laxative.” The list of what it can be used to treat is extensive, including acne. Read more here.

Rhubarb for sale in Tajrish Bazaar, northern Tehran. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The rhubarb I saw in Iran is likely to be Rheum ribes which grows wild from Turkey through to Armenia and including Lebanon and Syria. In these countries, the root is also used medicinally, as well as the stalks eaten raw or cooked in sweet and savoury dishes. I can heartily recommend Koresh Rivas (Lamb & Rhubarb Stew).

Marco Polo is credited with bringing medicinal rhubarb to Europe in the 13th century, called Rhacoma root. The drug was so highly regarded that in 1657 in England it could command three times the price of opium.

The popularity of rhubarb as a pudding took off in the old British Empire for two reasons – the 1837 coronation of Queen Victoria which saw the introduction of the ‘Victoria’ variety by nurseryman Joseph Myatt (still available) combined with a significant reduction in sugar taxes in the mid-19th century, which made the sweetening of cooked rhubarb far more affordable.

In his 2011 book, Forgotten Fruits, author Christopher Stocks calls Myatt “the godfather of modern rhubarb”, and credits him with popularising as a food a plant that had previously been grown for medicinal purposes.

Rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb, Turkish rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, Russian rhubarb) is both a medicinal and food plant. Image: Zahnradzacken via Wikipedia

The forcing process – an earlier crop with a sweeter stalk – was discovered by accident in 1817 in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London but 60 years later the main growing area moved to Yorkshire. The Rhubarb Triangle in West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world’s winter-forced rhubarb, an astounding statistic. This story says that the area is a frost pocket, good for the main crop that’s grown outside, while the high-value ‘forced’ rhubarb is grown in the dark in heated sheds – and apparently the sound of the buds breaking open is audible!

This is a tremendous video (and commentary) about what goes on in a forcing shed (3.24 minutes).

In 2010 Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb became the 41st British product to be added to the list of European Union legally-protected names which includes Swaledale Cheese, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar and Cornish Sardines. Read more here.

John Bartram is the first person known to have grown rhubarb in the United States, after being sent two species in the 1730s by Peter Collinson and another by Benjamin Franklin in 1770. Intriguingly, although it was still considered a medicine, Collinson in 1739 wrote to Bartram that it made excellent eating in tarts. Read more at the Philadelphia Historic Plants Consortium website.

It wasn’t until 1829 that rhubarb appeared in American seed catalogues, and has been a popular garden product ever since, known as ‘“pie plant’” by many housewives.

And what of the name, rhubarb? According to an online dictionary of etymology, English takes it from old French (rubarbe) which came from Latin which took it from the original Greek, which was Rha barbaron, a combination of two words meaning “not from around these parts” (barbaron also gives us barbarian). Rha comes from the ancient Greek name of the Volga river (and Rha was itself a loan from Scythian, the ancient Persian language), perhaps simply meaning “a faraway place we know nothing about” rather than indicating the plant came from Russia; or perhaps rhubarb was imported into the Roman Empire from China via Russia (and remember we’re talking about the root at this time, not the stalk).