Misunderstood Rhubarb. A vegetable treated like a fruit. Understated. What do you know about it?
- Bright red stalks and green/red stalks are equally ripe.
- Its leaves are poisonous and its stalks are not.
- It requires a few weeks of cool temperatures (under 5 C or 40 F) and moderate summers to grow.
- Always pull rhubarb stalks out of the ground – don’t cut them.
- For thousands of years, rhubarb was used in traditional medicine, not as food.
The COVID 19 pandemic and global lockdown has changed many people’s attitudes towards food security. I started to wonder what plants could be grown locally, preserved easily, offered good enough nutrition, and could handle cold weather. Rhubarb came to mind: it is an undemanding perennial herb, and almost a perfect match for the cold winters and moderate summers in most parts of Western Canada[i].
The story of this vegetable treated as a fruit, begins with its Latin name Rha barbarum. Rha is the ancient name of the Volga River in Russia; and barbarum means “not from here” (i.e. not from Russia but from foreign parts). Several historical references speculate that it was brought from Central Asia down the Volga River by Greek traders, and thence to Russia, Turkey, and England [ii].
Dried rhubarb root was prescribed for its cathartic properties (it is a strong laxative, to be precise). The stalks began to be used for culinary purposes when sugar started to become more available in the late 1700s.
The intrusion of sugar into the story of rhubarb hits on the transformation of an entire society stretching across the globe. Colonialism, slavery, and sugar plantations are all facets of the topic that cannot be easily dismissed in one sentence.
In BC food history, rhubarb was part of the Hudson’s Bay Forts provisioning efforts for its nutritional value. It contains fibre and small amounts of micronutrients such as Vitamins C and K to help prevent nutritional deficiencies.
Rhubarb was also important to newcomers and homesteaders who brought rhubarb crowns with them. When the homesteaders moved on, and their farms crumbled back into the ground, the rhubarb patch often persisted. The same is true of modern-day cities; every time a house in an older neighbourhood is demolished, the rhubarb often remains.
A recent revival of interest in heirloom rhubarb cultivars has led to requests for rhubarb stories. “Purges and Pies”[iv], an article by Norma Kerby in Northword Magazine tells the tale of one man’s rhubarb and his desire to pass it on. Kerby’s request for stories is still current. See her contact information in the cited article.
The next two blogs will cover many aspects of rhubarb, including how to grow and propagate rhubarb, heirloom varieties, why crowns are better than seeds, and some prize recipes, both savoury and sweet. We won’t get to the topics of Gregory’s Powder or a Monty Python song about rhubarb by John Cleese. That will be left for the future.
One last point – the quiz items are all TRUE!
[i] https://www.plantmaps.com/koppen-climate-classification-map-canada.php If you are interested in plant hardiness, see the interactive maps for specific provinces. As a reference point, Edmonton and Prince George, two northern cities I’ve lived in are both Zone 4A. Vernon, BC is Zone 5B
[ii] https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/r/rhubar14.html#tur See this site for specific and fascinating information on many different types of rhubarb
[iii] https://www.history.com/news/rhubarb-a-love-affair This article by Beth Dunn includes information that will be covered in the next couple of rhubarb blogs – but look ahead if you want to make rhubarb fool!