When in a recent Facebook post a friend touted the curative properties of rhubarb I was immediately seized by the twin emotions of mild revulsion and gentle nostalgia. Revulsion because I have never really liked the taste of rhubarb and felt that it was simply the ingredient that ruined a perfectly good strawberry pie. Nostalgia because I associate the plant with the part of my youth that I spent in New Hampshire.
As an experiment I typed “rhubarb” and “nostalgia” into my search engine. Sure enough, I was not the only one who saw Rheum rhabarbum through sepia-toned glasses. Joe Bonwich of the Cleveland Plain Dealer quotes Sam Wiseman: “It’s such an old-fashioned crop. A lot of people remember it from their youth, seeing their grandmothers grow it in the garden.”
A blogger at Chicago Now named Julie is more ambivalent about the purple-stalked plant, but at some point admits: “I have a vague recollection of a childhood strawberry-rhubarb pie that has attained a mythical status in my mind.” She then goes on to describe how much she dislikes the taste of it and how her chemist husband puzzles over the fact that the stem are edible and the leaves are poisonous.
Although through the 20th century in the United States, rhubarb steadily became increasingly the province of pie-baking grandmothers, it was once a very sought after vegetable. It is native to temperate Asia and was much used by the Chinese for its medicinal properties. According to Chicago Now’s Julie Chinese rhubarb was regarded as three times more valuable than opium in the 19th century.
It is the roots of R. rhabarbum that have the laxative properties so prized in pre-modern medicine, East and West, with its fixation on purging things from the body. The active ingredients are anthraquinones, which were subsequently occasionally isolated to serve as dieting aids.
The leaves, as has been noted, are poisonous, although not likely to be deadly. The Chicago Now blogger reports that one would have to consume about 5 kg of the leaves to reach the LD50 level (quantity at which half the rats in an experiment perish) of oxalic acid in the typical leaf. She notes though that anthraquinone glycoside is thought to be present in the leaves as well, adding to their toxicity.
Rhubarb grows best where the average summer temperature is below 75°F and the average winter temperature is below 40°F, which is to say a cool temperate climate. Little wonder then, that the Greeks learned about it from the Scythians, who were living in the Ukraine a few thousand years before the birth of Christ. The very name is derived from Greek, where rha refers to both the plant and to Volga River. The -barb part of the word comes from the trivial part of the binomial barbarum, which is the plural of the word barba, the Greek word for “beard.”
I don’t know if this refers to the Scythians who, unlike the Greeks, were bearded or is some sort of fanciful reference to the form of the inflorescences, which consist of large yellowish bundles of tiny blossoms arranged in a rough panicle shooting up well above the leaves.
Come to think of it, there must have been precious few places where rhubarb could have been cultivated successfully on the Greek peninsula. Perhaps there are places in the mountains where the Mediterranean balminess is sufficiently far below. Like many aspects of the Classical world, rhubarb was lost and found again through other avenues. It came into Europe through the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century and through Modern time spread across Europe up into the British Isles, where it remains popular among a small, but devoted following.
In early 19th century it was planted in Maine and Massachusetts and spread west with New Englanders fleeing the crummy farmland and short growing seasons of the northeastern U.S. It continues to grow in New England, but does not to my knowledge become invasive like, say, daylilies, which spread out of front yards and along the roadsides of the northeast in dense stands. In contrast, rhubarb seems to remain in its corner of the vegetable garden, one of the first things to green up year after year.
With the advent of foodie culture, these persistent stands of R. rhabarbarum may be getting harvested once again, occasionally as the Facebook post attests, for its medicinal properties, but more often for its tarty buttery flavor, brought under control with judicious amounts of sugar in compotes, jams, pickles, and, of course, pies.