One of my fondest childhood memories is the neat row of rhubarb plants along the machine shed that magically reappeared each spring from what had been frozen ground only a few short weeks before. Since rhubarb is native to climes that experience deep freezes, our patch easily survived the cold Iowa winters. While other plants still lay dormant, the large fan-shaped rhubarb leaves quickly gathered enough sunlight to grow the juicy stalks to harvest size. The first rhubarb was always the best, not because it was really better quality than that gathered later on, but because it yielded the first spring pie.
The history and botany of rhubarb are complicated. To simplify things, let’s say there are several kinds, but only two broad categories. Medicinal rhubarb, of which the best was judged as early as the eighteenth century to be Rheum palmatum (its leaves are in the shape of a hand), is native to the borderlands of western China, northern Tibet, and the Mongolian plateau. Its seed stalk grows five to eight feet tall and its leaves stretch two to three feet wide. Since the Han dynasty, traditional Chinese medicine has used its peeled, dried, and ground yellow roots to treat constipation and diarrhea, depending on the dosage prescribed by a trained herbalist. Eventually this “true rhubarb” reached Europe via trading with Russia and the British East India Company sailing directly from China. Dale Marshall, who has studied rhubarb from England to New Zealand, states, “At one time, rhubarb powder was worth more than opium.”
Culinary rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum (also known as R. rhaponticum), is much smaller, only two to three feet tall. Since its roots lack the same laxative qualities as medicinal rhubarb, culinary rhubarb is grown for its edible stalk—its leaves are toxic and sometimes fatal. Its native range is from southern Russia and the north Caucasus region into Eastern Europe, possibly Bulgaria. Eventually it made its way to Italy and the herbal gardens of Britain, France, the Low Countries, and Sweden. While medicinal rhubarb was well known in England by the seventeenth century or earlier, culinary rhubarb, called rhapontic or pie-plant, wasn’t mentioned in cookbooks until the second half of the eighteenth century.
Clifford Foust, the author of Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug, spent nine chapters on medicinal rhubarb, but only one—his last—on culinary rhubarb and why it was not initially the rage it grew to be. One theory is that R. rhaponticum was not intrinsically very tasty and that it took several decades of hybridization before cultivars were truly appealing to the taste buds.
Credit for popularizing rhubarb on the British Isles is given to Joseph Myatt, a nurseryman who on an early spring morning in 1808 or 1809 set out five bundles of a Russian rhubarb cultivar for sale at the fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden. Though discouraged by his poor sales, Myatt encouraged his patrons to cook the rhubarb with sugar. Over the next decade his sales increased dramatically. Indeed, the accessibility of sugar was a major factor in bringing rhubarb to the fore during the early to mid-1800s. By then, sugar had declined enough in price to become available to the masses, not just the upper classes. All of sudden, sour fruits and vegetables like rhubarb could be made palatable.
How did rhubarb finally make it to America? One reference says that “Ben Franklin is generally credited with introducing rhubarb to America,” adding that he sent seeds from Scotland to Philadelphia botanist John Bartrum in 1770. Another citation mentions that these were “true rhubarb seeds,” i.e., probably medicinal rhubarb, not culinary. On April 13, 1809, Thomas Jefferson made the following entry in his garden journal at Monticello, “One row of Rheum undulatum, esculent rhubarb, the leaves excellent as spinach.” Obviously he was confused, as pointed out by the editor of the 1944 edition of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, who wrote that Jefferson was probably referring to R. rhaponticum. As it turns out the microclimate at Monticello, which is too hot in the spring, proved to be unsuitable for growing rhubarb; there is none there today. (Rheum undulatum, with wavy-edged leaves, is a less efficacious medicinal variety.)
During the eighteenth century, only a few horticulturists knew that rhubarb seeds did not faithfully reproduce plants identical to the parents, and that the best way to multiply rhubarb was through propagation by roots and rhizomes. Did immigrants bring culinary rhubarb cuttings with them from Europe, or did someone hybridize a new American cultivar from seeds? Scholars don’t know. However, it is known that both the English and Germans love of rhubarb, and that both groups of immigrants brought rhubarb recipes with them.
While there is no doubt that spring-grown rhubarb is the best and most plentiful, two horticultural developments have made rhubarb available throughout the year. In the 1890s, Luther Burbank, the brilliant, yet patient California plant breeder, successfully hybridized cultivars of rhubarb that flourished in Australia and New Zealand by tricking them into reversing their biological calendars, which were attuned to the Southern Hemisphere. The result was that one of Burbank’s cultivars could be grown in the field nearly year round and even as far south as San Diego.
The other method that keeps rhubarb lovers in supply year round is “forcing,” a technique accomplished in dark hothouses, in which rhubarb is encouraged to send up its juicy stalks off season through temperature elevation in the winter. This method brings forth beautiful crimson red stalks—rhubarb’s response to the absence of light—that are more tender and tasty than commercially field-grown rhubarb, the primarily green variety often found in the grocery freezer. Unfortunately, growers like to hold it in the field too long in hopes of reaping a larger yield, a practice that sometimes results in a product that is tasteless and full of holes, almost like “Tinkertoys.”
While the commercial center for rhubarb is the West Coast, the East Coast has plenty to offer—including an annual rhubarb festival in the middle of Pennsylvania Amish country. On the third Saturday in May, Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, sponsors a rhubarb recipe contest and a Rhubarb 500 replete with dragsters constructed out of rhubarb stalks. The various shops in the village offer rhubarb treats for sampling, and the restaurant menus abound with unique dishes like rhubarb soup, rhubarb-glazed chicken kabobs, and rhubarb streusel. And then there’s the rhubarb pie throw. (Notable rhubarb festivals have also taken place in Leola, South Dakota, Silverton, Colorado, Shedden, Ontario, and Wakefield, England, among others.)
Rhubarb grows best north of the Mason/Dixon Line, and as I live just south in Maryland, I make an annual spring pilgrimage north to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to “forage” for rhubarb. I drive around the back roads looking for abandoned or under-appreciated patches of rhubarb that are going to waste, and I usually find that the owners are more than happy to part with some without compensation.
When lucky, I find my annual 40 pounds in one place, but if not, I continue foraging. On the rare occasion, I have to break down and buy some rhubarb from a local Amish family. But then there is the added benefit of getting some help cutting off the leaves–which is a fair tradeoff.
I, or my helpers, remove all the leaves in the patch and leave them for mulch and when I get home that evening (or the next day), the kids and I spend several hours cleaning, drying, chopping and bagging pie-size portions, and labeling them for the freezer. (Rhubarb has an amazingly long freezer life—dependably one year, if not two.) So, plan to make your own pilgrimage this spring. Remember it will be a whole year from now before bright red stalks of the best fresh rhubarb grace your garden, or someone else’s, once again.
It is an unfortunate quirk of nature that the peak seasons for rhubarb and raspberries or strawberries are not synchronized, but modern-day freezer technological has completely overcome this problem. Stock up and freeze rhubarb early in the spring, and then wait for the strawberries and raspberries to arrive. Strawberries are perfect for this recipe, but raspberries impart a darker color to the finished dish and mulberries turn the dish a delightful purple.
Rhubarb has a very delicate flavor that can easily be masked by the strong molasses flavor of dark sugars. The truth is that for most of my life, I used flavor-neutral white sugar to sweeten the filling, but in the past few years I have found that maple sugar does not overpower the taste of rhubarb either.
- 8 cups chopped rhubarb, fresh or frozen
- or 6 cups rhubarb, fresh or frozen and 2 cups raspberries, strawberries, or mulberries
- 1 cup maple sugar
- 1-2 Tbsp. arrowroot powder
- 1 1/2 cups oatmeal
- 1 1/2 cups spelt
- 1 1/2 cups maple sugar
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 3/4 cup butter, melted
Place all the fruit in a large bowl. Mix the maple sugar and arrowroot powder well and pour over the fruit. Mix well to coat each piece of fruit. Pour into a greased or butter 9×13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish.
Combine the oatmeal, spelt, maple sugar and baking powder; stir well. Pour over the melted butter and mix well. Crumble over the fruit. Bake at 350°F for 60 minutes or until the fruit is soft and bubbling. (If you have used frozen fruit, it could take up to 90 minutes.) Serve warm or cool.
Rhubarb Custard Pie
Kudos go to Barbara Zook of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for this great recipe. I have doubled the filling on her original recipe in order to make enough to fill a 10-inch lard pie crust.
- 2 eggs
- 1½ cup white sugar
- 2 tsp. vanilla
- ¼ cup white flour
- 4 cups diced rhubarb
- ¾ cup spelt or pastry flour
- ½ cup maple sugar
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
Cream eggs and sugar, add the vanilla and flour; stir to incorporate. Add the rhubarb and stir. Pour the rhubarb mixture into a prepared pie crust. Mix together the topping ingredients and crumble onto the top of the filling. Bake at 400°F for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350°F and continue baking for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
North-South Rhubarb Compote
This recipe combines two northern, cold-climate foods with one from the tropics to create a simple and delicious dessert. The further north one goes, the better the conditions for growing rhubarb, so it’s not surprising that almost every garden in Quebec has a patch. Coincidentally, Quebec produces 70 percent of the world’s maple sugar. Rhubarb and maple sugar are delightfully complementary—and orange juice adds a splash of sun.
- 4 cups rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice
- 1 cup granulated maple sugar
Put all ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a slow simmer. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and the mixture achieves the consistency of a thick sauce. Remove from the heat and cool slightly to serve warm or refrigerate overnight to serve cold. Refrigeration will naturally thicken the mixture into the consistency of a pudding. Serve with whipped cream.
Is rhubarb a fruit or a vegetable? Perhaps the English writer Keith Waterhouse put it best when he wrote in his book Rhubarb and Other Noises: “I can tell you without fear of contradiction that rhubarb is not a vegetable. It is not a fruit…Rhubarb is rhubarb.” In spite of his sentiments, botanically speaking, rhubarb is considered a vegetable—divine poetic justice for the tomato, which is really a fruit.
The author would like to thank Clifford Foust and Dale Marshall for reviewing this manuscript.
For more information:
- Clifford M. Foust, Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992.
- Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, annotated by Edwin Morris Betts, introduction by Peter J. Hatch, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1999.
- Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, annotated by Edwin Morris Betts, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1944.
- Dale Marshall, “A Bibliography of Rhubarb and Rheum Species,” will soon be available on CD. Contact email@example.com.
This article, with slight recipe changes, first appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.