Fun and interesting facts about rhubarb.

SONY DSC

The rhubarb in the community garden is absolutely monstrous this year – it shot up so quickly I barely had time to blink during the transition between fat sprouts to gargantuan wide leaves and thick, harvest-ready stalks.  I’m dreaming about the rhubarb cake I am going to bake….

Rhubarb gardeners will know most of these fun facts, but if you’re new to growing (or eating!) it, you might enjoy this little list of rhubarb trivia:

  • Rhubarb is in the Polygonaceae family, which includes buckwheat and sorrel.
  • Rhubarb’s binomial name is Rheum rhabarbarum – the specific epithet is from the Latin and means “root of the barbarians.”
  • Rhubarb leaves are poisonous, chock full of more oxalic acid than humans and animals may safely consume.  Small amounts of oxalic acid are found in the stalks, which we eat – the acidity gives rhubarb its “tang.”  (You’ll find small amounts of oxalic acid present in sorrel and spinach, as well).
  • Contrary to popular belief, even though rhubarb leaves are poisonous, they actually can be composted.  The acids in them will break down like any other natural chemical found in plants and will not cause the compost to become toxic.  Just make sure you chop those gigantic leaves up so that they’re easier for your composter to break down quickly.  And you might not want to put too many in the composter at once, as not to upset the balance of the carbon to nitrogen ratio.
  • The part of rhubarb that we eat is the petiole of the leaf.
  • Rhubarb is a perennial. And it is supremely tough and cold-hardy, so you usually have to do something really, really horrific to kill it once it becomes established.  Like drive over it with a truck.  Or set it on fire.  And it may even survive those things.
  • Rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, but we treat it like a fruit in cooking and often eat it in desserts.  In 1947, the United States gave it the legal designation as a “fruit” to avoid the high tariffs imposed on imported vegetables. (It was cheaper at the time to bring fruits into the country).
  • You’ll sometimes hear rhubarb referred to as the “pie plant.”  If you’ve ever eaten rhubarb pie (or even better, strawberry rhubarb pie), it’s not difficult to be a supporter of this nickname.
  • If your rhubarb stalks are green, they’re not underripe or something.  Some cultivars have greener stalks than others.  The red colour is due to the presence of anthocyanins, the same chemicals that make the leaves of some deciduous trees turn red in the autumn.
  • Rhubarb root has been used as a laxative in Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
  • Rhubarb reached Europe via the Silk Road in the 14th century.  The plants were brought to North America by European settlers in the early 1800’s.
  • If you like to dye textiles with natural plant-based dyes, rhubarb leaves make a good mordant (just be really careful while handling them!).  The roots will produce a brown dye.
  • In the United Kingdom, it is common to force an early rhubarb crop under pots in January and February.  A second crop is planted outdoors for later harvest.
  • Store harvested rhubarb stalks in the fridge and use them up as soon as you can.  Rhubarb freezes well so that’s an option if you have a huge harvest.
  • Do not harvest rhubarb in the heat, as the stalks will quickly wilt.
  • Speaking of harvesting rhubarb – pull or cut?  Always pull!  If you cut the stalks, you might encourage rot.  And never, ever, take more than half of the stalks of the plant at a time.
  • If your rhubarb is damaged by a late spring frost, you can remove most of the stalks (leave at least 3 to 5 on the plant) and allow the plant to regrow – it should produce another crop shortly.  Don’t eat the frozen stalks.
  • Rhubarb has really pretty, dramatic flowers – and as long as you don’t allow them to set seed, you can enjoy the flowers for a very brief time.  You can keep harvesting the rhubarb stalks while the plant flowers – the quality of the produce does not suffer.  If the plants set seed, however, the energy that would be devoted to the creation of delicious stalks is then diverted to the seeds, which you don’t want.  You’ll end up with smaller stalks as a result.   So if you want flowers AND yummy stalks, watch carefully to remove the blooms at just the right time.
  • The word “rhubarb” may also refer to a loud dispute; in the 1940’s, it was commonly used as a descriptor of the on- and off-field shenanigans of fans and players at raucous baseball games.  In 1930’s theatre, the repetition of the word “rhubarb” by stage actors was used to simulate background conversation.
  • (UPDATED MAY 2018) – I found a fantastic audio file of the sounds forced rhubarb makes as it grows – how fun!  Check it out here.

What are your favourite rhubarb recipes?  (Please go ahead and post links – I’m always on the hunt for more!).  Here are a couple of my favourites, from my (former) blog at GRIT.com:  Rhubarb Coconut Muffins and Rhubarb Oatmeal Cake