Rhubarb: Food or Medicine?

Who grows rhubarb? Raise your hand… Yes, most of us probably, whether we want to or not – especially if our yard or home site dates back 50 years, or more. Rhubarb is hardy and drought tolerant. It seems to be looked upon as either a dependable source of stalks for jams and baking, or as a weed, if we’re trying to eliminate it. But did you know it began its life as a cultivar in China for medicinal purposes?

It’s snowing out there right now, but this year’s rhubarb is beginning to break through!

The botanical roots of the word are Greek, although historically, it was the Chinese who produced the powdered rhubarb root, acclaimed for its purgative properties. The medicine eventually traded its way to Europe via the Silk Road in the 1400s, but the plant, itself, didn’t appear in European medicinal gardens until the 1600s. By the mid-1700s, European records show rhubarb as a food plant used for tart and pie fillings, and by that time, it was already growing in North American gardens, as well. The food plant is suspected to be a hybrid developed from the original Asian medicine plant.

What most of us have growing in our gardens, if we’re lucky, is the strawberry rhubarb plant, a modern flavour favourite. Heritage cultivars may not be as tasty as the modern hybrids, but their genetic connections to the original Asian medicine plants would certainly be worth preserving. Both HBC men and missionaries relied on the rhubarb plant for food and for medicines. If you live near what used to be an old Hudson’s Bay Company fort or an early mission site, that rhubarb plant in the back 40 – that goes dormant mid-summer – may just be an original HBC import.


All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

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