I have a longstanding love of rhubarb and unfortunately, for most of my adult life its been from afar thanks to my confounded stubbornness. Growing up, rhubarb was so abundant that neighbors readily off loaded (ahem, shared their bounty). As much of my adult life was moving from city to city, that same situation was sadly missing. I would see it on occasion, but buying it in the store did not gel with my memories, to me this was something straight from the home garden, and any short cut was cheating. I know, incredibly irrational to deprive myself but there you have it. Now that I am settled, I have four plants growing by the day, and look for mutual lovers of tartness to share by bounty.
With my love of rhubarb, you might suspect that we had a plethora of recipes we rotated through. The truth is that there’s a handful I remember, the rhubarb jam speared on bread straight from the oven, rhubarb sauce (cooked down like apple sauce) and rhubarb pie. Any of those bring me back to my childhood faster than you can blink an eye. I am not alone in my love of this tart vegetable. The town of Lanesboro in my home state of Minnesota has an annual festival to celebrate its bounty. Another Mid-Westerner, Laura Ingalls Wilder bestowed the nickname of pie plant, a name it was commonly known by in the United States in the late 19th century.
Rhubarb is usually considered a vegetable. In the United States, however, a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was used in the United States as a fruit, it counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties. An unexpected benefit was a reduction on imported rhubarb tariffs, as tariffs were higher for vegetables than fruits.
Growing this Veggie
Rhubarb is broadly grown and, thanks to greenhouse production, is available almost year round. Hothouse rhubarb is typically available in early spring, before outdoor cultivated rhubarb is available. Hothouse rhubarb is usually brighter red, more tender and sweeter-tasting than outdoor rhubarb. In temperate climates, rhubarb is one of the first food plants harvested, usually in mid-to-late spring, and the season for field-grown plants lasts until September. In the northwestern US states of Oregon and Washington, typically two harvests are from late April to May and from late June into July.
Rhubarb grows year-round in warm climates, but in temperate climates, the above ground portion of the plant completely withers away as freezing temperature arrive. The plant grows from the root at the return of warm weather. Rhubarb growth can be ‘forced’ or encouraged to grow early by raising the local temperature, often by placing an upturned bucket over the new shoots.
The color of rhubarb stalks varies from crimson red, through speckled light pink, to simply light green. Rhubarb stalks are poetically described as “crimson stalks”. The color results from the presence of anthocyanins, and varies by both rhubarb variety and production technique. The color does not yield clues to its suitability for cooking, as that green-stalked rhubarb is actually more robust and has a higher yield, most people prefer the red-colored stalks.
Rhubarb in History
The Chinese used rhubarb medical purposes for thousands of years. Though Dioscurides’ description of ρηον or ρά, a root brought to Greece from beyond the Bosphorus may have included rhubarb, the commerce did not become securely established until Islamic times, when it was imported along the Silk Road, reaching Europe in the 14th century through Aleppo and Smyrna, and becoming known as “Turkish rhubarb”. Later, when an established trade round developed through Russia, “Russian rhubarb” became the common term.
For centuries, the plant grew wild along the banks of the River Volga, for which the ancient Scythian hydronym was Rhā. Transportation across Asia made rhubarb expensive in medieval Europe—it cost more that other valuable herbs and spices, such as cinnamon and saffron. For this reason, Marco Polo wanted to find where the plant was grown and harvested. Rhubarb’s value can be seen in Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo’s report of his embassy in 1403-05 to Timur in Samarkand: “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…”
The term “rhubarb” is a combination of the Ancient Greek rha + barb arum referring to both the plant and the River Volga. Rhubarb first came to the United States in the 1820s, following the westward movement of the European American settlers.
Rhubarb is grown primarily for its fleshy petioles, AKA stalks. Rhubarb stems as food is a relatively recent innovation, first recorded in 17th century England when sugar became affordable and its use peaked between WW I and WW II.
In the past days, a common and affordable sweet for children in the United Kingdom and Sweden was a stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar. Children still eat this treat in western Finland and Norway, Iceland to name a few places. In Chile, Chilean rhubarb is sold on the street with salt or dried chili pepper, no sugar. Apparently they like pucker power.
Rhubarb leaves contain poisonous substances, including oxalic acid, which is a corrosive acid and a nephrotoxic that is also present in many plants. People have been poisoned after ingesting the leaves; in World War I, this problem was exacerbated when the leaves were recommended as a food source in Britain. This fact was new to me: “Rhubarb damaged by severe cold should not be eaten, as it may be high in oxalic acid, which migrates from the leaves and can cause illness.”
In the petioles (stalks), the amount of oxalic acid is lower, only about 2-2.5% of the total acidity. While the raw stalks may not be harmful, the tart taste of raw stalks can be unpalatable to many.
Commonly stewed with sugar and used in pies and desserts, it can also be found in savory dishes or pickled, dehydrated and infused with fruit juice. The options are only limited to the users imagination. I love strawberries and fresh ginger mixed with it.
Now I’ve been trying to expand my rhubarb repertoire and have a few ew options in the mix.
Rhubarb ideas to get you thinking