What is Rhubarb?
This, it transpires, is a key question. When I started to talk to my friends about my proposed trip, following the ancient trade routes of this illustrious plant, I was greeted with many a blank look.
“Rhubarb? What’s rhubarb?”
“You don’t know rhubarb? The plant with the bright red stems and the huge green leaves?”
“Rhubarb crumble? Apple and rhubarb tart? Strawberry and rhubarb jam?”
“Big huge leaves ground down to make medicine? Kind of toxic if you don’t get it right?”
*another round of blank*
[continue ad nauseam]
Well then. Rhubarb is the name for the many different species of Rheum, which is found in the wild in mountainous areas of the Western China, particularly Gansu and Tibet. It is now cultivated in large parts of Europe and the US: spreading the rhubarb-love to more people than ever before. It has a fantastic, unique and tart taste, rich in Vitamin C and fibre.
Mirriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary also weighs in on the topic:
- Any of a genus (Rheum) of Asian plants of the buckwheat family having large leaves with thick succulent petioles often used as food
- The dried rhizome and roots of any of several rhubarbs grown in China and Tibet and used as a purgative and stomachic
- A heated dispute or controversy.
The last one, albeit somewhat unrelated, is quite interesting. Supposedly, rhubarb is Baseball slang meaning “loud squabble on the field”. But it wasn’t until 1938 that such a meaning was employed. Varieties of rhubarb have a long history – literally thousands of years – as medicinal plants in traditional Chinese medicine. That’s what prompted the plant’s gradual migration West, alongside silk, for trade in extraordinary locations like Samarqand, Herat and Persepolis.
So, it’s a type of medicine?
Well, initially, I guess that’s exactly what it was. Our beloved plant was initially cultivated for its medicinal qualities, as it is an extremely effective purgative. (What’s a purgative? It’s like Imodium in reverse.)
It wasn’t until the 18th century that rhubarb was grown for culinary purposes in the UK and America. But it does taste amazing – particularly with generous sprinklings of sugar, or in pies with baked apple.
So it’s a fruit?
No, you philistines. Rhubarb is commonly mistaken for a fruit, but rhubarb is actually a close relative of garden sorrel, and is therefore a member of the vegetable family. You know how the tomato and cucumber are often bundled together with the other veggies, when they’re actually fruits? It’s kind of like that. But the other way around.
So, it’s Chinese?
Well, that’s a tricky one. The technical name of the ‘barb – Rheum – is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga, on which banks the plants grow. Others claim the name comes from the Greek rheo, meaning ‘to flow’, alluding to the root’s purgative properties.
However, it has since been proven that although various types of rhubarb grow in different parts of the world (Altay, Siberia, the Himalaya, Tibet and Mongolia), true rhubarb, i.e. the stuff that prompts a proper ‘evacuation’, is the Chinese variety (Rheum palmatum), which is only found in the mountainous regions of Gansu province.
So how did a laxative come to get in my English pudding?
Well, it all came over with the traders. Marco Polo harped on and on about rhubarb in the accounts of his trips through China. By then, rhubarb was already a feature of European pharmacy given the eastern Arabic influence that seeped into major trading cities like Venice. Even today, the roots of the Chinese stuff are still used in medicine.
But there’s a bit more mystery to it than that. For centuries, the true source and identity of medicinal rhubarb was concealed to protect traders supplying the European market. Even today in China, the botanical identity of the drug sold in herb markets is strangely unclear.
The first record of cultivation in Europe was around 1608, spreading to other nearby countries after 20 to 30 years. However, rhubarb fevah took time to get going – and it wasn’t until 1778 that it was officially recognised as a foodstuff. It was around that time that it started to be found as filling in pies – lending a face-screwingly sour and tart flavour.
So, this trip is to trace the path of a sour-tasting laxative?
Well, when you put it like that, it doesn’t sound all that appealing. But yes, essentially that’s what it is. Rhubarb has such a ‘cult’ following in the West (hence the blank looks earlier) that it’s hard to believe that it was so important centuries ago. Wars were fought over the stuff. The chinoiserie that so fascinated the powdered wigs of 18th century French court life is encapsulated in this attractive plant.
We all know about the Silk Road, and how the produce of curious worms gorging on mulberry leaves turned the world on its head. I’m pretty sure rhubarb was just as influential – yet has something of a PR problem.
Throughout the course of my 10,000 mile jolly, I’ll be seeing how rhubarb has fared in more recent years. Whilst I recognise I’m unlikely to be greeted with a steaming bowl of rhubarb and custard upon arrival in Ashgabat, I can still harbour some optimism.
Don’t forget to check out the special Rhubarb Knowledge posts!