Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum or Rheum × hybridum according to the British Royal Horticultural Society) is a species of plant in the family Polygonaceae. It is a herbaceous perennial growing from short, thick rhizomes. The fleshy, edible stalks (petioles), are used in cooking, but the large, triangular leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid, making them inedible. The small flowers are grouped in large compound leafy greenish-white to rose-red inflorescences.
Although rhubarb is a vegetable, it is often put to the same culinary uses as fruits. The leaf stalks can be used raw, when they have a crisp texture (similar to celery, although it is in a different family), but are most commonly cooked with sugar and used in pies, crumbles and other desserts. They have a strong, tart taste. Several varieties have been domesticated for human consumption, most of which are recognised as Rheum x hybridum by the Royal Horticultural Society.
Rhubarb contains anthraquinones including rhein, and emodin and their glycosides (e.g. glucorhein), which impart cathartic and laxative properties. It is hence useful as a cathartic in case of constipation.
“Rhubarb” originally comes from the two Greek words for rhubarb. Rheon from the Persian rewend, later became the Latin word rheum, meaning rhubarb. The other Greek word is rha, an ancient name for the Volga River in Russian, where rhubarb was cultivated, having been introduced there from China via the Silk Road. In medieval Latin, rheon and rha became rheum barbarum, literally “foreign rhubarb” or “strange rhubarb”, and evolved later into rheubarbarum. Most likely, the English word “rhubarb” entered the language via the French word rhubarbe brought over by the conquering Normans and from the Latin rheubarbarum.
For cooking, the stalks are often cut into small pieces and stewed (boiled in water) with added sugar, until soft. Little water is added, as rhubarb stalks already contain a great deal of water. Rhubarb should be processed and stored in containers which are unaffected by residual acid content, such as glass or stainless steel. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger are sometimes added. Stewed rhubarb or rhubarb sauce, like applesauce, is usually eaten cold. Pectin, or sugar with pectin, can be added to the mixture to make jams.
A similar preparation, thickened with cornstarch or flour, is used as filling for rhubarb pie, tarts, and crumbles, leading to the nickname “pie plant”, by which it is referred to in many 19th-century cookbooks, as well as by American author Laura Ingalls Wilder in her short novel The First Four Years.
In former days, a common and affordable sweet for children in parts of the United Kingdom and Sweden was a tender stick of rhubarb, dipped in sugar. It is still eaten this way in western Finland, Norway, Canada, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Sweden, and also some other parts of the world. In Chile, Chilean rhubarb, which is only very distantly related, is sold on the street with salt or dried chili pepper.
In traditional Chinese medicine, rhubarb roots have been thought of as a laxative for several millennia. Rhubarb also appears in medieval Arabic and European prescriptions. It was one of the first Chinese medicines to be imported to the West from China.
Rhubarb leaves contain poisonous substances, including oxalic acid, which is a nephrotoxic and corrosive acid that is present in many plants. Humans have been poisoned after ingesting the leaves, a particular problem during World War I when the leaves were mistakenly recommended as a food source in Britain. The toxic rhubarb leaves have been used in flavouring extracts, after the oxalic acid is removed by treatment with precipitated chalk (i.e., calcium carbonate). Oxalic acid can also be found in the stalks of rhubarb, but the levels are too low to cause any bodily harm.
About The Festival
A small rhubarb bake sale was included in a Village Improvement Committee plant sale, to gauge interest.
Turned out, interest was strong. And thus began an annual tradition.
The Rhubarb Festival began in 2013 to celebrate rhubarb. Suzanne W Pelton, a native of Lenox, grew up eating rhubarb from the back yard: stewed rhubarb and strawberry rhubarb pie. “The fruit (actually it’s a vegetable) is loaded with nutrition (17 vitamins and minerals), is low in calories and high in fiber. Just what we’re being encouraged to eat more of,” she says.
“It just grows in Western Mass. You can’t kill it unless you mow over it repeatedly,” she says. “And it waits patiently to be harvested without getting too big or too tough like cucumbers and string beans. It’s the perfect homegrown vegetable. How is it that cranberries became a national dish but rhubarb made so little impact? I’m learning ways to use it in savory cooking. The rhubarb chili at the Festival is a way to introduce people to that notion. We’ll have a couple of other savory rhubarb items too.”
“Most people don’t make pies anymore,” says Ms. Pelton. “They remember loving their grandmother’s or mother’s strawberry rhubarb pie. As children, they ate stalks of rhubarb dipped in sugar. After the older generation has passed away, they can’t find homemade rhubarb pies. There’s a big hole in them where rhubarb pie is supposed to be. The Rhubarb Festival aims to fill that void.”