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.

Three Sisters

In gardening, “three sisters” refers to a very specific trio of seeds that had been planted together by the Iroquois for centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The corn, bean, and squash combination is referenced in the Iroquois creation myth but its success is also supported by science. Each of the vegetables contributes to the health and vitality of the other two plants, and together, they ensure soil fertility.

The three sisters are a perfect example of companion planting, but are also a nutritional “powerhouse when combined.” Corn is a great source of energy; beans provide protein and fibre; squash is full of vitamins and minerals. For specific directions on how to plant a traditional arrangement of three sisters seeds, whereby the corn supports the beans and the squash shades their roots, check out Catherine Boeckmann’s article in the Farmer’s Almanac. Click through for Three Sisters Stew and Three Sisters Soup recipes.

The growing season in parts of the prairies may not be quite long enough for a real bountiful harvest, however, if you’re interested in trying it out, Heritage Harvest Seeds (Canadian mail orders only) offers a Three Sisters Heirloom Seed Collection of Hidatsa Shield Figure Bean, Mandan Bride Corn, and Algonquin Pumpkin. The seeds were originally sourced from indigenous peoples in North America, and are now grown on site on the company’s Manitoba farm. Varieties similar to those listed above can also be purchased separately through Seed Savers (Canadian & U.S. orders accepted).

Who Likes Berries?

Choke cherries at Fort Pitt
Chokecherries, Fort Pitt, SK

Berries weave an interesting thread through the history of western Canada. They entered the story early, an important food source for many living creatures on the prairies, and proved to be essential to the success of the buffalo hunt for Indigenous peoples. Local berries would eventually be welcomed into the diets of most newcomers, and even celebrated with festivals in their name!

One of the staples of the Indigenous diet on the Great Plains was pemmican, “a portable, high-energy, highly nutritious, and filling foodespecially convenient for crossing long distances in pursuit of the buffalo herds. Pemmican is a Cree-Chippewa word meaning fat – appropriate because 50% of pemmican was rendered buffalo fat with 45% lean shredded buffalo meat, and 5% dried and ground berries. As the fur trade spread throughout the Hudson’s Bay watershed, pemmican became a portable food source for traders, voyageurs, and early travelers, too. Today, pemmican is popular as a survival food for hikers, and modern recipes feature all sorts of variations, including vegetarian options (see links below).

Speaking of recipes, a few years back I visited Fort St. James, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade post in northern British Columbia. They were passing out samples of Indian ice cream made from soapberries. Soapberries will foam when crushed, but are too bitter to eat by themselves so are usually mixed with something else. The recipe shown below features soapberries, water, and sugar. The berries also possess a number of medicinal qualities, as do many native plant species.

Settlers, of course, were familiar with berries, even though they may have been different from the ones in their homelands. Berry patches were located, berries were picked and preserved, eaten with fresh cream, and baked in pies, muffins, etc. St. Walburg in west-central Saskatchewan celebrates wild blueberries. Why? I’m not sure, but their 30th Annual Wild Blueberry Festival finished up last weekend.

Who else likes berries? Well, at Fort Pitt I found evidence down by the river that the bears probably really like the chokecherries. I bet you can guess what kind of evidence I found.


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

Home-style Seedy Saturday

clematis in bloom
Clematis in Bloom

Our first growing season in Cut Knife, in 2006, got off to a slow start. We took possession of the house in mid-May and, even though that should have left us lots of time to plant a garden, there were too many other things to do. Besides, the yard was completely overgrown, and if ever a garden plot had existed there, it had long since disappeared.

There was, however, a small patch of open earth on the south facing side of the yard which looked promising. Located beside an old tree stump, it was approximately 4 ft. x 3 ft. and used to be, I was told, the site of our old outhouse. That spot was just big enough to grow a few flowers, a row of Swiss chard and a couple of zucchini plants. A token gesture, for sure, but it allowed me to get my hands dirty.

As a point of interest, the outhouse had probably sat near the back door, on the property line, since 1914 when the house was moved there. That is, until one of our neighbours, sometime in the new millennium, decided it would work perfectly in her back yard. She spoke to the previous owner and arranged for a local business – the only one in town with a fork lift – to transport it to her property, a few blocks over. Today, it serves as her wood shed.

Since that first mini-garden, we’ve gradually developed our gardening space to include a kitchen garden, a rhubarb patch, a vegetable plot, and numerous flower beds. Every year, we talk about stepping up our game, about building cold frames, adding shrubbery, laying mulch, digging up more grass for bee-friendly perennials. But, each year, the time seems to pass without these things happening.

In any case, this past weekend, we were at home soaking our peat pellets and preparing our own seeds for the raised-bed kitchen garden. In the spirit in which Seeds of Diversity advocates, we had purchased organic heritage seeds, not hybrids, and, come this fall, we hope to harvest the seeds from these plants, as well as the vegetables they produce.

2012 raised bed kitchen garden
Raised-bed Kitchen Garden, Cut Knife, SK

Speaking of kitchen gardens, though, what distinguishes them from the classic vegetable garden is the mixture of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers planted together in a geometrical design, instead of simple rows. I’d dreamed of having one of these ever since I saw the gardens at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, many years back. They’re great for companion planting and square foot gardening methods; the addition of flowers and herbs makes it aesthetically pleasing, and raised beds are my secret to saving my knees.

By the way, if you were wondering how my first garden in Cut Knife fared – it was sad. The marigolds made it through the summer but the Swiss chard and zucchini were overrun with slugs. I pulled the vegetables in July.

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