From its Himalayan home in Tibet, rhubarb got a lift to Europe with Marco Polo, and was introduced in America around 1820. Hardy and resilient, rhubarb is now grown in temperate climates around the world. One of only a few perennial vegetables, rhubarb plants often produce for years with little care.
My rhubarb patch is comprised of six mostly green-stemmed plants rescued from an abandoned site a few years ago (not all rhubarb is red). Transplanted into fertile soil, the plants have thrived despite accidental crowding. The GrowVeg.com Garden Planner will suggest that you plant rhubarb crowns at least 3 feet (90 cm) apart, and I highly recommend following its advice. In most gardens, three widely spaced rhubarb plants will produce as well or better than five crowded into the same space.
Twice a week from April to June, I gather the stalks, taking about two stalks per plant at each cutting. I discard the leaves in my compost pile, though pest-plagued gardeners might consider using them to make an insecticidal tea. The leaves contain so much oxalic acid and anthraquinones that they are poisonous to eat, but a tea may make a good pest-deterrent spray. Rhubarb roots should be considered poisonous, too, unless used by a skilled practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.
Rhubarb plants often send up monstrous flower buds, which are considered a delicacy in parts of central Asia. I can find no information on the chemical properties of this particular plant part, so I compost the buds after cutting them off. Removing the flower stalks encourages the plants to use their energy to produce more gigantic leaves.
Rhubarb’s Dietary Dilemma
Rhubarb stems contain much less oxalic acid than the leaves, and little or no anthraquinone. So, they are safe to eat in reasonable quantities, and provide vitamins A and C. But eating too much rhubarb too often might not be a good idea because of possible stress to kidneys and inflammation of joints. It is estimated that an adult would need to eat several pounds of rhubarb to feel ill effects, with 20 to 25 pounds (9 to 11 kg ) of fresh rhubarb as a lethal dose.
Possible death by rhubarb is an entirely modern fear, because until refined sugar became cheap and widely available, rhubarb’s pungent sour flavor naturally kept people from eating too much. Limiting how much sugar you eat will limit your rhubarb intake, too. The sugar dilemma has also led me to rediscover several old uses for rhubarb, and maybe some new ones, too:
- Rhubarb juice works as well as lemon or lime juice to prevent discoloration of apples, bananas, and other cut fruits. Fresh or frozen and thawed, small pieces of rhubarb smashed in a garlic press readily give up their juice.
- Rhubarb may help prevent cancer when baked or stewed for 20 minutes. Adding slivers of candied ginger turns roasted rhubarb into a big-flavor condiment.
- In a recent study, daily doses of rhubarb extract reduced hot flashes in menopausal women. Unlike other natural remedies, rhubarb extract does not contain estrogen.
- Rhubarb juice may be helpful as a weight loss aid. Ten years ago, a study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine found that a rhubarb supplement was as effective as fenfluramine (a then-popular diet drug that has since been taken off of the market because of cardiac side effects)in promoting weight loss.
I like strawberry rhubarb pie as well as the next person, but rhubarb juice may be the tastiest way to help yourself to rhubarb’s health benefits. To make it, bring a quart (liter) of water to a boil, and add a handful of fresh or frozen rhubarb pieces (the equivalent of two stalks). Turn off the heat, and strain when cool. Sweeten just enough to make the rhubarb-ade drinkable, pour over ice, and add a sprig of mint. You have springtime in a glass.
By Barbara Pleasant