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That's Rhubarb for you

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

The genus Rheum, commonly known as Rhubarb has a rich historical nomenclature, dating back to ancient times where its root was used as a medicinal herb. Some believe ‘Rheum’ or ‘Rhu’ came from ‘Rha’, originating from ‘sreu’, translating as ‘River to flow’ in Indo-European protolanguage, and in historical trading relating to the Rha river, or Volga river which separated Europe or Romans from the barbarian lands where Rhubarb is thought to originate. These Barbarians or ‘barbaros’ further influenced the initial Latin naming, ‘Rha barbarum’, which then became ‘Rhubarb’ in England, ‘Rhabarber’ in Germany and ‘Reven’ in Russia. Some also speculate the ‘flow’ connotation being connected to the medicinal properties of the plant, which cause purgative effects.

Rheum is a Perennial Rhizomatous plant with petioles 12-18 inches long, and large heart shaped, dark green leaves. These leaves are poisonous if ingested, due to the Anthraquinone glycosides, and oxalic acid content. Yet they can be composted. However, the petioles, which are referred to as stalks or stems or sticks are a culinary vegetable, which is well known in dessert recipe’s.

There is much vagueness to the exact origin of Rhubarb, however some suggest its use pre dating Christianity to around 2700 BCE in China. Indeed, central and Northern parts of Asia can be presumed as its site of origin, where it was used in a purgative herbal recipe ‘San Chi Qi’ and evidence can be seen in the oldest surviving Chinese materia medica ‘The Shen Nong BenCao Jing’, of its herbal use. Further records also indicate the use of the herb by famous Greek scholars Theophrastus 287 BCE, Dioscorides 90 CE and Galen 210 CE, who recognised its laxative capabilities. It was imported into Rome and Greece as medicine likely along the silk road as it became a major export of Asia by 1000 CE. This carried through, spreading to India, Russia, Europe and North America to the 1400’s where it was exported from ports such as Smyrna and Aleppo, recognised as Turkish Rhubarb and was sold at a higher price than Cinnamon and Saffron.

Records indicate Rhubarb growing being introduced in to Bodicote, Banbury in 1777 and Culinary Rhubarb cultivation first begining in the 1800’s, when soil dug up in a ditch accidentally covered the crown of a dormant Rhubarb plant forcing etiolation. This resulted in a more succulent, eye catching petiole, with a far sweeter taste than the parent plant grown with previous methods. Thus, a new cultivation method was born! The plants were initially exposed to the cold winter weather to break the dormancy and initiate spring growth and were then brought in to the darkened heated houses, or forcing sheds which created warm, dark growing conditions lit only by candle light, enabling further etiolated growth. Yorkshire took on the majority of production, referred to as ‘The West Yorkshire triangle’ where they used coal from the coalfields to provide bottom heat, and the pollution from nearby factories minimized pathogens. These methods, still used today, resulted in some of the earlier cultivars, such as ‘Victoria’, ‘Stockbridge Arrow’, and ‘Champagne’

Presently, forcing sheds from the Yorkshire triangle are still used to create a sweeter tasting, redder crop at the beginning of the year, but throughout the rest of the year glasshouses, and outdoor cultivation methods are also used. Forcing usually occurs January to Early February with early cultivars arriving for harvest March-April onwards, and the maincrop arriving late April-May onwards, to be harvested throughout the summer.

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