Updated: Mar 13, 2019
I originally wrote this some years ago but have revisited this much loved plant!
One of spring's 'love it or hate it' vegetables that is in season now is rhubarb. Dreadfully sour or deliciously sharp, depending on your taste buds, there is no denying its return to favour over recent years.
Traditional culinary rhubarb is a hybrid cross classified by the Royal Horticultural Society as Rheum x hybridum, but one of its parents is Rheum rhabarbarum. In England and similar cooler climates, rhubarb is forced from early spring to produce sweet pale shoots before being left to grow naturally for the rest of the growing season. Interestingly, the same plant will produce good edible shoots all year round in warmer climates.
In China, rhubarb has been grown for thousands of years as a traditional form of medicine and was written about as early as 2700BC in The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root compiled by the Emperor Yan. Its roots are rich in anthraquinones, a strong laxative being used for well over 5,000 years and it also has an astringent effect on the mucous membranes. For this reason, rhubarb has occasionally found itself fashionable as a slimming agent.
Rhubarb also naturally occurs along the banks of the River Volga but it is technically a separate species and known as Russian Rhubarb. During the Mediaeval period, rhubarb was so expensive to transport from these far flung places to Europe that it cost several times that of cinnamon, saffron and opium, and it was in the Tangut Province of China that Marco Polo rather excitedly found it being farmed on the mountainous hillsides.
Rhubarb was first introduced to the United States in the 1820s first arriving in Maine and Massachusetts before traveling with early settlers across the country. In England, rhubarb was first grown in the 17th century with the advent of cheap sugar to improve its sharp taste and was most popular in the interwar years.
The name rhubarb is derived from the Greek for the Volga, rha and barbarum. As a genus, it belongs to the Polygonacea family, which includes Rumex, Muehlenbeckia and Persicaria. Within the rhubarb clan there are some stunning showy plants, which given a large herbaceous border make a fantatsic addition, Rheum Palmatum has a number of garden worthy selections, but outside of some of the most unusual species plants Rheum palmatum var. tanguticum with its deeply cut rich red leaves which age green and its huge plumes of blood red flowering bracts would be my plant of choice. Although thought of as an ornamental, we grow this one to eat first and become decorative later in the year, finding its stems naturally a little sweeter then the better known culinary rhubarb.