Love Me, Love my Rhubarb

By Lucy Bacon in Food

When I came to live in Southern Ontario, going on six years ago, I had no idea I was choosing a life in the Rhubarb Capital of the World. In other places where I’ve lived, which include England, Alberta, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia, rhubarb had always been around, taken for granted, a docile staple in my garden, enjoyed in a few pies, mulched, and then largely forgotten until the next season. I was unprepared for a garden companion of such exuberant abundance that, despite my benign neglect, starts pushing up out of the ground even before the snow has completely disappeared, grows around rock piles and out through weed-cloth barriers, and produces and produces and produces from the beginning of the season until long after everything else in the garden has been harvested, turned under, composted and otherwise dispensed with.
My husband is a long-time Ontario resident, having lived most of his life under the threat of a rhubarb takeover. His patch originated in a friend’s farmyard outside of Cambridge. He relocated a few roots to his garden at his mother’s house, and subsequently to his own home in town. Years later, he moved to rural Grey County, and brought half a dozen plants to our current location. There are now at least fifteen distinct sturdy root clumps in the patch. Over the years he has given some away, but it keeps multiplying, providing us with greatly appreciated ‘free food’.
Rhubarb is everywhere. I’ve seen fields where the farmer has carefully ploughed around a patch that must once have hugged the fence but is now several yards out into the cultivated area. There are abandoned farm houses where the rhubarb patch continues to thrive long after quack grass and dock and Queen Anne’s lace have reclaimed the ancient kitchen garden. I’ve even been to summertime potlucks where just about every dessert featured rhubarb in one form or another.
It would seem that rhubarb loves the generally neutral pH soils of southwestern Ontario, which are amongst the most productive in Canada. They support high crop yields and what is called cation-exchange capacity. This latter refers to overall fertility, nutrient retention capacity and the ability to protect groundwater from contamination. A little loving care and attention brings a disproportionately enthusiastic response from your rhubarb patch. Manure in spring as well as after the harvest keep it happy, and mulching conserves moisture and keeps the weeds down. Even though it tolerates drought and overcrowding, plants that are adequately watered and given plenty of room to grow make more and larger stems. As the crowns get crowded, the stalks tend to get thinner and flowers come sooner. Plants can be aggressively divided, even with an axe, and flowers should be removed. This latter won’t necessarily extend the harvest, or prevent the stalks from becoming tough, the heat of summer can be blamed for that, but it will help conserve the plant’s energy which mainly goes to root formation.
“But I don’t like rhubarb,” people often complain. Well fine. Personally, I don’t like hot dogs, which is a much more sacrilegious statement in present-day North American culture. Still, it seems a shame to pass up on a food so generous and undemanding, and also good for you. Rhubarb is a source of calcium, Vitamin C, and potassium. One cup of raw rhubarb has 27 calories. “Whoever would eat it raw?” You might well ask, but in fact the first young stalks of the season are sweet and juicy. In the past, and even today in some parts of the developed world, apparently including rural Eastern Ontario, a stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar is given to children as a treat. I imagine it doesn’t have quite the same clout as a Freezie though, unfortunately.
Rhubarb has been with us for a long time. About 2700 years ago in China, The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic mentions the use of rhubarb for medicinal purposes, primarily for its efficacy as a purgative or a laxative. It would appear to have reached Europe sometime in the 14th century, imported from Turkey along the Silk Road, and fetching several times the price of other valuable herbs and spices such as cinnamon, opium and saffron. Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo, who in 1403-5 was the Castillian ambassador to Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan, reported that: “The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb…” (Quoted in Frances Wood, The Silk Road: two thousand years in the heart of Asia, 2002 ). In later years, it was brought from Russia, where it grew wild along the banks of the Volga. The name is derived from Latin rhabarbum, “near the river of the Barbarians”. It arrived in Maine around the 1820’s and spread across North America with the European settlers. By that time it was already appreciated as a bountiful earlier-than-anything-else fruit.
In fact, rhubarb is botanically classified as a vegetable, one of about 1200 species of polygonaceae, commonly known as knotweeds, which includes plants such as buckwheat, sorrel, and the highly invasive Japanese knotweed. However, in 1947, it was decided by a New York court that since it was used as a fruit, it was to be counted as such for the purposes of regulations and duties. This made it cheaper to import rhubarb, since tariffs were higher for vegetables than for fruits. Although it does most commonly appear on our tables as a dessert, in pies and cakes, compotes and crumbles, it can also be turned into a flavourful chutney:

Spicy Rhubarb Chutney

2 cups packed brown sugar
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
6 cups rhubarb, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
3 small jalapenos, with seeds, minced
2 teaspoons minced ginger
3 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup raisins
In a large pot combine salt, spices, sugar and vinegar. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve sugar. Add rhubarb, jalapenos, garlic, ginger, onion and raisins. Return to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until desired thickness, stirring often. Spoon into sterilized canning jars.
Delicious plans for your rhubarb need to be tempered with respect. As well as other not fully identified poisons, the leaves are known to contain a quantity of the poisonous and corrosive oxalic acid, a component of the most common form of kidney stones. I don’t even put them on my compost pile, but I have experienced moderate success using them as a weedkiller, piled thickly on the ubiquitous goutweed, for example. They can also be made into an organic insecticide to use on flowers and shrubs only, in order to kill aphids, caterpillars, whitefly, spider mites and other garden pests:

In a large pot, cover about a pound of rhubarb leaves with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Cool and strain into a spray bottle, labelled and designated for this use only. Add a tablespoon of dish soap, secure the cap, shake and spray on infested flowers and shrubs.

For people who are perturbed by the quantities of sugar needed to make their garden rhubarb palatable, there’s pleasure to be had from the dramatic tall sprays of rhubarb’s creamy-white flowers. Furthermore, beauty and edibility aside, rhubarb found its way into the mainstream in British theatre and early radio drama. Actors were encouraged to repeat the words “rhubarb, rhubarb” whenever they needed to create the effect of conversation going on the background. Versatile rhubarb. Southern Ontario’s pride and joy. May it continue to be a part of our lives for many more thousands of years.