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Rhubarb is a group of plants that belong to the genus Rheum in the family Polygonaceae. They are herbaceous perennial plants growing from short, thick rhizomes. They have large leaves that are somewhat triangular shaped with long fleshy petiole. They have small flowers grouped in large compound leafy greenish-white to rose-red inflorescence. While the leaves are toxic, the plants have medicinal uses, but most commonly the plant's stalks are cooked and used in pies and other foods for their tart flavour. A number of varieties have been domesticated for human consumption, most of which are recognised as Rheum x hybridum by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Cultivation

Rhubarb is now grown in many areas and thanks to greenhouse production is available throughout much of the year. Rhubarb grown in hothouses (heated greenhouses) is called hothouse rhubarb. This rhubarb is typically made available at consumer markets in February and March, before outdoor cultivated rhubarb is available. The hothouse rhubarb is usually a brighter red than the cultivated rhubarb. Hothouse rhubarb is also more tender and tastes sweeter than cultivated rhubarb. In temperate climate rhubarb is one of the first food plants to be ready for harvest, usually in mid to late spring (April/May in the Northern Hemispheremarker, October/November in the Southern Hemispheremarker), and the season for field-grown plants lasts until September. In the northwestern US states of Oregonmarker and Washingtonmarker, there are typically two harvests: one from late April to May and another from late June and into July. Rhubarb is ready to be consumed as soon as it is harvested, and freshly cut stalks will be firm and glossy.

In warm climates, rhubarb will grow all year round, but in colder climates the parts of the plant above the ground disappear completely during winter, and begin to grow again from the root in early spring. It can be forced, that is, encouraged to grow early, by raising the local temperature. This is commonly done by placing an upturned bucket over the shoots as they come up. Because rhubarb is a seasonal plant, obtaining fresh rhubarb out of season is difficult in colder climates, such as in the UKmarker.

Rhubarb can successfully be planted in containers, so long as the container is large enough to accommodate a season's growth.

The colour of the rhubarb stalks can vary from the commonly associated crimson red, through speckled light pink, to simply light green. Rhubarb stalks are poetically described as crimson stalks. The colour results from the presence of anthocyanins, and varies according to both rhubarb variety and production technique. The colour is not related to its suitability for cooking: The green-stalked rhubarb is more robust and has a higher yield, but the red-coloured stalks are much more popular with consumers.

Historical cultivation

Rhubarb displayed for sale at a grocery store.
The plant is indigenous to Asia, and many suggest that it was often used by the Mongoliansmarker; particularly, the Tatars of the Gobi Desert. The plant has grown wild along the banks of the River Volga for centuries. The term rhubarb is a combination of the Greek rha and barbarum; rha is a term that refers both to the plant and to the River Volga. Rhubarb first came to Americamarker in the 1820s, entering the country in Mainemarker and Massachusettsmarker and moving westwards with the European American settlers.

Uses

Rhubarb is grown primarily for its fleshy petioles, commonly known as rhubarb sticks or stalks. The use of rhubarb stems as food is a relatively recent innovation, first recorded in 17th century Englandmarker, after affordable sugar became available to common people, and reaching a peak between the 20th century's two world wars.

Cooking

One way is to cut up the stalks into one-inch pieces and stew them (boil in water); it is only necessary to just barely cover the stalks with water because rhubarb stalks themselves contain a great deal of water); add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of sugar for each pound of rhubarb , then add cinnamon and/or nutmeg to taste. Sometimes a tablespoon of lime juice or lemon juice is added. The sliced stalks are boiled until soft.

At this stage, cooked with strawberries or apples as a sweetener, or with stem or root ginger, rhubarb makes excellent jam. Other fruits, with the addition of pectin (or using sugar with pectin already added), can also be added to rhubarb at this stage to make a variety of jams: the fruit is added at a ratio of two parts fruit to one part rhubarb, consisting of strawberries or raspberries, or chopped plums, apricots, or apples. Boiling should continue for at least ten minutes after all fruit is completely softened, depending on whether a simple refrigerated jam is made, or if (with longer cooking) jam is to be bottled for a long shelf life.

To make a "sauce," of rhubarb (to which dried fruit could be added near the end) continue simmering 45 minutes to one hour at medium heat, until the sauce is mostly smooth and the remaining discrete stalks can easily be pierced with a fork, which yield a smooth tart-sweet sauce with a flavor similar to sweet and sour sauce. This sauce is called rhubarbsauce, analogous to applesauce. Like applesauce, this sauce is usually stored in the refrigerator and eaten cold. The sauce, when stewed over medium heat only a short time (about 20 minutes) and with only a little water so that the rhubarb stalks stay mostly discrete, may be used as filling for pies (see rhubarb pie), tarts, and crumbles. Sometimes stewed strawberries are mixed with the rhubarb to make strawberry-rhubarb pie. This common use has led to the slang term for rhubarb, "pie plant". It can also be used to make wine.

In former days, a common and affordable sweet for children in parts of the United Kingdommarker and Swedenmarker was a tender stick of rhubarb, dipped in sugar. It is still eaten this way in western Norway. In the UKmarker the first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight in dark sheds dotted around the noted "Rhubarb Trianglemarker" of Wakefieldmarker, Leedsmarker and Morleymarker, a practice that produces a sweeter, more tender stalk.
A homemade rhubarb pie


Medicine

Rhubarb can be used as a strong laxative, with the roots being used as a laxative for at least 5,000 years. Rhubarb has an astringent effect on the mucous membranes of the mouth and the nasal cavity.

The roots and stems are rich in anthraquinones, such as emodin and rhein. These substances are cathartic and laxative, which explains the sporadic use of rhubarb as a slimming agent.

Rhubarb roots are used in traditional Chinese medicine; rhubarb also appears in medieval Arabic and European prescriptions.

Toxic effects

Rhubarb flower.


Rhubarb leaves contain poisonous substances, including oxalic acid which is a nephrotoxic and corrosive acid that is present in many plants. The (median lethal dose) for pure oxalic acid in rats is about 375 mg/kg body weight, or about 25 g for a 65 kg (~140 lb) human. While the oxalic acid content of rhubarb leaves can vary, a typical value is about 0.5%, so a rather unlikely 5 kg of the extremely sour leaves would have to be consumed to reach an dose of oxalic acid. Cooking the leaves with soda can make them more poisonous by producing soluble oxalates. However, the leaves are believed to also contain an additional, unidentified toxin, which might be an anthraquinone glycoside (also known as senna glycosides). In the petioles, the amount of oxalic acid is much lower, only about 2-2.5% of the total acidity.

References

  1. Rombauer, Irma S. Joy of Cooking Indianapolis/New York:1975 Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc. Page 142
  2. Rhubarb Varieties
  3. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York, NY: Scribner, 2004. p 366
  4. Waters, Alice. Chez Panisse Fruit. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002. p 278
  5. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York, NY: Scribner, 2004. p 367
  6. Charles Perry, trans. An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century
  7. Oxford English Dictionary s.n. rhubarb, n.
  8. GW Pucher, AJ Wakeman, HB Vickery. THE ORGANIC ACIDS OF RHUBARB (RHEUM HYBRIDUM). III. THE BEHAVIOR OF THE ORGANIC ACIDS DURING CULTURE OF EXCISED LEAVES. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 1938
  9. Everist, Selwyn L., Poisonous Plants of Australia. Angus and Robertson, Melbourne, 1974, p. 583
  10. http://www.cbif.gc.ca/pls/pp/ppack.info?p_psn=171&p_type=all&p_sci=sci
  11. McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York, NY: Scribner, 2004. p 367


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