Rhubarb jam and rhubarb stalks

13 Interesting Facts About Rhubarb

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Rhubarb is an unusual vegetable that is often used in sweet desserts, despite its tart taste. The red stalks add vibrant color and flavor, but the leaves are toxic. Read on for 13 fascinating facts about this perennial plant!

A Brief History

Rhubarb originated in Asia over 5,000 years ago. Chinese medicine has used rhubarb roots for their laxative properties since ancient times. As early as the 1st century AD, rhubarb was brought along the Silk Road trading route to Europe, where it first became popular as a medicinal plant.

By the 18th century, rhubarb had made its way to America and gained popularity as a springtime pie plant, despite some initial hesitations about eating a “vegetable” in desserts. Sugar helped sweeten and tame rhubarb’s tartness to make it more palatable.

Botanical Background

  • Classification: Rhubarb is an herbaceous perennial that grows from short, thick rhizomes. Its botanical name is Rheum rhabarbarum.
  • Plant family: Polygonaceae, the buckwheat family. Other edibles in this family include buckwheat and sorrel.
  • Leaf shape: The leaves have a rounded shape with wavy or curly edges.
  • Stalk colors: Stalks emerge green but rapidly grow and change color. Most rhubarb varieties have red stalks, but some cultivars produce green, pale pink or speckled stalks.
  • Regions grown: Rhubarb thrives in temperate climates, including northern U.S. states and Canada. England has a long history of rhubarb horticulture for “forced rhubarb.”
Fresh red rhubarb

Growing Conditions

  • Climate: Cool weather and temperatures below 40°F stimulate bud break and stalk growth.
  • Location: Plant in full sun locations with well-drained, fertile soil.
  • Soil: Loamy soil with plenty of organic matter provides good drainage and nutrients. The soil pH should be between 6.5-6.8.
  • Maturity: It takes 2-3 years from seed planting before rhubarb plants are mature enough to harvest.
  • Harvest seasons: In temperate climates, the harvest season is typically early spring into summer.

Interesting Rhubarb Facts

Now that we’ve covered some essential background, here are 13 intriguing facts about Rheum rhabarbarum:

  1. Technically a vegetable: Although we treat it as a fruit, rhubarb is botanically a vegetable since it originated from the rhubarb plant’s rhizomes.
  2. Toxic leaves: While rhubarb stalks are edible, the leaves contain poisonous substances like oxalic acid. Avoid eating them!
  3. Cold hardiness: Rhubarb can survive winter temperatures as low as -20°F once established, making it one of the first plants ready to harvest in spring.
  4. Natural laxative: The roots have been used medicinally as a laxative in herbal medicine traditions for millennia.
  5. Healing properties: In addition to laxative qualities, preliminary research indicates rhubarb has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
  6. Requires chilling: After harvest, rhubarb should be chilled below 45°F to extend shelf life and prevent overly fast growth of the stalks.
  7. High water content: With around 91% water content, rhubarb stalks provide low calories by volume.
  8. Oxalic acid: This organic acid gives rhubarb its mouth-puckering tartness. Cooking helps counteract the acid taste.
  9. Pollinator favorite: Bees and other pollinating insects flock to the clustered white or pink rhubarb flowers in late spring/early summer.
  10. Giant variety: An oversized rhubarb variety called Victoria can grow 4-5 feet wide!
  11. Sweet pairing: Strawberries naturally balance out rhubarb’s tartness, making them classic pie partners.
  12. Rhubarb triangle: A 9-square mile area in West Yorkshire, England has grown rhubarb since the 1800s, using the cold winters and natural fertilizers.
  13. Alaskan harvest: The long sunny days in Alaska allow for exceptionally rapid rhubarb growth, with reports of 100 pounds harvested from a single plant!
Fresh red rhubarb
Fresh red rhubarb

Key Takeaways

  • Rhubarb has been used for medicine and food for thousands of years, originating in Asia.
  • Technically a vegetable, rhubarb is more often used as a tart fruit in sweet pies and jams.
  • The leaves are poisonous, but the stalks are edible and increasingly popular.
  • Cool climates with long winters produce the best rhubarb for early spring harvests.
  • Strawberries naturally balance out rhubarb’s intense sour flavor.
  • The oxalic acid, minerals, and potential healing properties make rhubarb an intriguing plant!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why can’t you eat rhubarb leaves?

Rhubarb leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals and oxalic acid, which cause kidney damage if consumed in high amounts. Only the stalks are safe to eat.

How do you sweeten rhubarb without sugar?

Honey, maple syrup, agave, or stevia drops can sweeten rhubarb without added sugar. Cooking the stalks makes them less tart too.

What does rhubarb taste like?

Rhubarb has a very tart, sour, and acidic taste, similar to underripe grapes or bitter citrus. The oxalic acid is responsible for the mouth-puckering flavor that sugar helps mellow out.

Is rhubarb a fruit or vegetable?

Botanically speaking, rhubarb is the stem of a vegetable, since it grows from the plant’s rhizome. But culinarily we use it like a fruit in desserts for its tartness.

How do you grow rhubarb?

Rhubarb thrives in zones 3-8 in full sun and nutrient-rich soil. Plant dormant roots or crowns in spring, harvest only lightly the first year, and fertilize plants annually.

Conclusion

Rhubarb is a unique early-season plant with ancient roots as a food and medicine. Though toxicity concerns with the leaves exist, the vibrant red stalks bring tart, zingy flavor as well as potential health benefits when harvested and prepared properly. With the right climate, care, and harvesting technique at its prime, rhubarb continues offering gardeners and bakers delight each spring.


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