Introduction and description
When we were small, my Mum used to make a rhubarb jelly for herself and sit in the kitchen eating the entire jelly by herself.
Children tend not to appreciate the flavour of rhubarb that much and my Dad’s rhubarb was quite tart, so we left her to it. My Mum was special that way. But Mum’s know best because rhubarb is a very noble plant having remarkable healing properties. It certainly helped my Mum, about the only illness she ever had were headaches [understandable given what me, my brother and my Dad were like]. She lived until she was 82 and died from old age, 11 months after my father died. So she is a good advertisement for rhubarb.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a species of plant in the family Polygonaceae. It is a herbaceous perennial growing from short, thick rhizomes. It produces large leaves that are somewhat triangular, with long fleshy petioles and small flowers grouped in large compound leafy greenish-white to rose-red inflorescences. It is actually a very decorative plant and would be just as at home in a flower border as a vegetable garden or allotment.
Types of rhubarb
When I went to University I shared a room with a lass called Barbara. She told me when we first met that she came from Pudsey. I had never heard of Pudsey, it turned out it is halfway between Leeds and Bradford in the north of England. As a way of starting the conversation I asked her politely what Pudsey was famous for and Barbara, in her winning Yorkshire voice, said ‘RHUBARB’. She was a fine friend was Barbara, still is.
Pudsey is the centre of what is called the Champagne triangle, which covers an area of land very roughly between Morley, Wakefield and Rothwell all in Yorkshire. And the crop they produce is called Champagne rhubarb. You cannot compare it with ordinary rhubarb, although both are delicious. Champagne rhubarb melts in the mouth. It is a soft pink in colour, sweet, with a delicate flavour. So good is it that the European Union, on 25 February 2010, awarded Champagne Rhubarb grown in Yorkshire ‘European PDO status’, under the product name of "Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb."
Champagne Rhubarb is rhubarb grown by a special technique. The rhubarb is started outside in the cold, then moved into long, low, "forcing-sheds". The warmer sheds fool the Rhubarb into thinking that spring has arrived, so that the stalks begin to grow. The rhubarb is grown in near darkness, traditionally by candlelight, and is even harvested by candlelight to avoid any changes to the flavour. Restricted light in the sheds causes the stalks to be less tart, less fibrous, lighter in colour, and more delicate overall -- hence the name "champagne."
In England, Champagne Rhubarb first comes on the market at the end of December and is available until around the end of March. Actual varieties of rhubarb used in Yorkshire includes, as of 2010:
- Timerley Early
- Stockbridge Harbinger
- Reeds Early Superb (aka Fenton’s Special)
- Prince Albert
- Stockbridge Arrow
- Queen Victoria
The rootstalk used is specially prepared two years in advance so that enough energy is stored up in it for the forcing. There can be no short cuts and if you find any on the supermarket shelves at any other time of year it is not the pukka thing.
Growing - Rhubarb is extremely easy to grow, although it enjoys being manured in the autumn. It is usually grown from crowns. Lawrence D Hills lists his favourite rhubarb varieties for flavour as Hawke's Champagne, Victoria, Timperley Early, and Early Albert.
It can be harvested from round about March/April to June in northern hemispheres. After that it should be allowed to flower and rest. It likes direct sunlight. It does not mind the cold. It can be planted in containers if they are large enough though you will have to feed them prodigiously. A rich friable soil is best, the better the soil the sweeter the rhubarb. Poor soil simply produces tough tart stalks.
I was once told by an ancient and venerable old gardener that the way to remember how to grow rhubarb is to liken it to the current British and American education system. ' Keep them in the dark and throw sh*t at them every day'. His words not mine.
Forcing - If you have your rhubarb in your garden, just as the rhubarb starts to poke its head above the ground, you cover it with something tall -- an upside down bucket, a terra-cotta chimney pot, old bin, etc, and allow just a bit of light to get in. Shading the plant stalks from the light stops stalks from becoming tart. Anything that will hold the heat is best hence the reason in the old days for using terracotta pots as they held the heat better overnight. Metal is not a good idea. Black plastic works because it also acts as an insulator.
Companion plant - Varroa is a genus of parasitic mites that attack honey bees and rhubarb is both a very effective pesticide but also a Varroacide. Grow rhubarb near your honey bee hives and the mites may disappear as the bees use the flowers of the rhubarb to muster their defences.
As an entirely personal and unproved addition, my father used to put the leaves he removed whenever he gathered the rhubarb for a meal, round any plant that got attacked by slugs, snails or caterpillars, as a deterrent.
It seemed to work.
Rheum palmatum, commonly called Turkish rhubarb, Turkey rhubarb, Chinese rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, Russian rhubarb or rhubarb root (and within Chinese herbal medicine da-huang) has a long history of being used medicinally.
Though Rheum palmatum is commonly misinterpreted to be one and the same with the familiar R. rhubarbarum – the garden rhubarb we eat, there are several facets falsifying this assumption. Size is the most evident of the facets used to differentiate these two closely related species. While most garden species only grow to a mere few feet in height, Chinese rhubarb can produce as high as a “six to ten foot jointed stalk,” with loosely branched clusters of flowers along the tips that mature red in color from their often yellow or white blooms.
Its leaves are rather “large, jagged and hand – shaped,” growing in width of at least two to three feet. It is important to recognize that only those species of rheum with lobed leaves are accredited for their medicinal use. Subsequently, garden rhubarb, R. rhubarbarum, as well as any other variety of species with either “wavy” or “undulating leaves” are not founded for any medicinal purpose
Except that they are wrong, because Mrs Grieve and Culpepper considered garden rhubarb every bit as good as Chinese rhubarb and from what we can see from the constituents and activity there is every reason to believe they were right in doing so.
One of the principle uses of rhubarb is as a laxative, but it also appears to be anti-parasitic and is a chelating agent. It is also anti-bacterial and selectively anti-viral. To add icing to the cake it is also anti-fungal – a true Food of the gods.
Chemical constituents and activities
Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases has an entry for the chemicals and their Biological Activities in: Rheum rhabarbarum L. (Polygonaceae) – Rhubarb. In the list that follows those chemicals that have no activity are not listed, and we have concentrated on the stalk, not the root. Dr Duke has the full list if you wish to see this. The plant contains a number of vitamins and minerals and a link has been provided to these entries on the site to obtain the activity there. We have also reduced the activity down to some key activities. Illness is caused by pathogens, thus the most important activity is that which attacks pathogens.
Thus we have marked where it is antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial and antitoxin, antiparasitic and especially if it is a chelating agent. Malic acid is a key chelating agent and rhubarb contains Malic acid, although the research of rhubarb appears not to have yet recognised this essential property.
In addition to the activity listed below, rhubarb [according to the research gathered by Dr Duke] has analgesic activity; anti-depressant, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety activity; antihyperthyroid and sedating activity; activity against kidney stones; is a laxative; helps with heart arrhythmias and other heart related problems; appears to help with various cancers and tumours of the gastrointestinal system; helps with osteoarthritis and osteoporosis; helps with skin problems being Antidermatitic and Antipsoriac; appears to help with allergies and asthma; and rhubarb also has anti-inflammatory activity.
ACETIC-ACID Pt: Antibacterial 5,000 ppm; Antibiotic; Antisalmonella; Antivaginitic 1-2%; Expectorant; Fungicide; Keratitigenic; Mucolytic; Osteolytic; Perfumery FEMA 6,000-40,000 ppm; Pesticide; Protisticide; Spermicide; Ulcerogenic; Verrucolytic
ALUMINUM Pt 1 - 80 ppm Antivaginitic; Candidicide; Pesticide
ARSENIC Pt 0.01 ppm;
ASCORBIC-ACID Pt 80 - 2,581 ppm
BETA-CAROTENE Pt 0.6 - 12 ppm
BORON Pt 0.1 - 36 ppm
CAFFEIC-ACID Pt 8 ppm; Antiadenoviral; Antibacterial; Antiflu; Antiherpetic 50 ug/ml EC50=>50 ug/ml; AntiHIV EC50=200 ug/ml; AntiLegionella; Antileukemic; Antistaphylococcic; Antivaccinia; Antiviral IC50=62.5 ug/ml; Fungicide MIC=0.4 mg/ml; Insectifuge; Metal-Chelator; Pesticide;
CHROMIUM Pt 0.005 - 0.1 ppm
CITRIC-ACID Pt: Antibacterial; Antileishmanic; Mycobactericide
COBALT Pt 0.005 - 0.1 ppm
COPPER Pt 0.2 - 5.2 ppm
FERULIC-ACID Pt 8 ppm; Antibacterial; Antiherpetic; Antileukemic IC50=25-56 ug/ml; Antiviral; Candidicide; Choleretic; Fungicide; Insectifuge; Metal-Chelator; Pesticide
FOLACIN Pt 0.06 - 0.1 ppm Antigingivitic 2-5 mg/day/man; Antiglossitic; Antimyelotoxic 5 mg/day/orl/man; Antiperiodontitic; Antiplaque; AntiSpina-Bifida
GALLIC-ACID Pt 53 ppm; Antiadenovirus; Antibacterial MIC=1,000 ug/ml; Antiescherichic; Antiflu; Antiherpetic EC50=>10 ug/ml; AntiHIV; Antileishmanic EC50=4.4 ug/ml; AntiMRSA; Antipolio; Antistaphylococcic MIC=1,000 ug/ml; Antiviral; Bacteristat; Candidicide; Floral-Inhibitor; Gram(+)icide MIC=1,000 ug/ml; Gram(-)icide; Hemostat;
IRON Pt 1 - 154 ppm
LACTIC-ACID Pt: Antivaginitic;
LUTEIN Pt 1.7 - 34 ppm
MAGNESIUM Pt 90 - 1,975 ppm
MALIC-ACID Pt: Antibacterial; Bacteristat; Bruchiphobe; Laxative; Mycobactericide; Pesticide;
MANGANESE Pt 2 - 35 ppm
MOLYBDENUM Pt 0.1 ppm;
NIACIN Pt 2 - 57 ppm
OXALIC-ACID Pt 4,400 - 13,360 ppm
P-COUMARIC-ACID Pt 44 ppm; Antibacterial; Antileukemic IC50=25-56 ug/ml; Fungicide; Pesticide
PANTOTHENIC-ACID Pt 0.8 - 13.3 ppm
PHOSPHORUS Pt 100 - 3,462 ppm
POTASSIUM Pt 2,510 - 66,400 ppm
PROTOCATECHUIC-ACID Pt: Antibacterial; Antiherpetic; AntiLegionella; Antileukemic; Antiviral; Fungicide 500 ug/ml; Pesticide;
QUERCETIN-3'-GLUCOSIDE Pt: Antibacterial; Pesticide
RIBOFLAVIN Pt 0.3 - 14 ppm
SILICON Pt 3 - 200 ppm
SINAPIC-ACID Pt 6 ppm; Antibacterial; Fungicide; Pesticide
SODIUM Pt 20 - 855 ppm
SULFUR Pt 62 - 1,240 ppm
THIAMIN Pt 0.2 - 6.5 ppm
VANILLIC-ACID Pt 4 ppm; Anthelmintic; Antibacterial 1.5-15 mg/ml; Ascaricide; Fungicide; Laxative; Pesticide;
ZINC Pt 1 - 46 ppm
Rhubarb in the form of Rheum palmatum has been used in both TCM and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In traditional Chinese medicine, the Rheum palmatum roots are also used, but treated like a medicine as opposed to a food. Rhubarb appears in The Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Classic compiled about 2,700 years ago.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) also appears in medieval Arabic and European prescriptions
The medicinal value of rhubarb has been known for thousands of years and its efficacy and ability to help with numerous problems has resulted in it becoming a sacred plant in many countries. The value of rhubarb can be seen in Ruy Gonzáles de Clavijo's report of his embassy in 1403–05 to Timur in Samarkand: "The best of all merchandise coming to Samarkand was from China: especially silks, satins, musk, rubies, diamonds, pearls, and rhubarb..."
The sacredness of rhubarb as a plant is even built into the Zoroastrian creation myth – the equivalent to the story of the Garden of Eden
Zoroastrianism - Encyclopedia Britannica - by: Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin
In order to vanquish Ahriman, Ormazd created the world as a battlefield. He knew that this fight would be limited in time—it would last 9,000 years—and he offered Ahriman a pact to that effect. After they had created their respective material creations, Ahriman’s first attack was defeated by Ormazd with the help of the Ahuna Vairya prayer (the most sacred Zoroastrian prayer), and he lay prostrate for another period of 3,000 years, the second in a total of four. He was then stirred up by the Primal Woman and went back to the attack, this time in the material universe. He killed the Primal Bull, whose marrow gave birth to the plants and whose semen was collected and purified in the moon, whence it would produce the useful animals. Ahriman then killed Gayōmart, the Primal Man, whose body produced the metals and whose semen was preserved and purified in the sun. A part of it would produce the rhubarb from which the first human couple would be born.
The history of Rhubarb forcing
The first known discovery of forced rhubarb appears to have been in Chelsea, London, in 1815, in the Chelsea Physic Gardens by a man named William Anderson . Anderson (1766 - 1846) was a curator at the gardens from 1815 to 46. A trench being dug accidentally heaped up some soil on top of rhubarb beds, causing the rhubarb that forced its way up through the heap of dirt to grow blanched, with better flavour. Anderson reported his findings to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1816. Within a year or two gardeners began experimenting with forcing rhubarb under extra tall, inverted flower pots with manure heaped around the outside.
In the 1870s, the technique was started in Yorkshire by Joseph Whitwell of Kirkstall near Leeds. He was also the first grower to build the special forcing sheds in which to do this. The first crop of forced rhubarb from Yorkshire hit northern English cities in 1877, and Covent Garden Market in 1878.
By the late 1800s, there were over 200 producers in the Yorkshire area. After the Second World War, with the advent of year-round fresh fruit, demand for early-spring rhubarb decreased. This, combined with a perception of rhubarb as "old-fashioned", caused the number of producers in Yorkshire to slowly decline until only 12 remained in 2010.
But there is a renaissance on the go partly because it is delicious, but also there is a growing awareness of its healing potential.
When you pick your own rhubarb never pull it out of the plant, this simply weakens the plant. Always cut the stalk with a sharp knife about an inch or two above the crown
You must only ever eat the stalk. Cut the leaf at the top of the stalk off about an inch below the join. The leaf is poisonous. You can peel the stalk. If the rhubarb is quite thick and the skin is tough, it is better peeled. You simply take a sharp knife, insert it at the top of the stalk and peel the skin off.
Don’t eat too much. It tastes nice and the temptation is to gorge on it, but if you gorge on it you get an overdose of oxalic acid, which is not a good idea. Oxalic acid in non overdose proportions does you no harm, but it can give you the squitters [amongst other things] if you eat too much of it.
Both champagne and non-champagne rhubarb can be used both as a savoury vegetable and a dessert. It can be grilled or put in the oven to retain its shape or cooked in a pan with a small amount of water to stop it burning, when you will get a puree. It does not need long to cook, only a few minutes.
Forced champagne rhubarb when freshly picked can be eaten raw with icing sugar. In the North of England, in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and some other parts of the world, it is still eaten this way. “In Chile, Chilean rhubarb, is sold on the street with salt or dried chili pepper, not sugar”.
If you store the rhubarb puree, always put it in a glass bowl, as the acid in the rhubarb attacks metals.
Chicken or other livers – Rhubarb grilled in sticks with just a slight sprinkling of sugar to caramelise the tops is a stunning vegetable to go with liver. The contrast of the rich livers with the tart rhubarb is perfect.
Smoked mackerel – rhubarb puree only lightly sugared, but with ground pepper and salt added. Serve the puree like a sauce. The rhubarb needs to be cooked with practically no water for this as otherwise it gets too runny and is no longer a sauce.
Pies and tarts - Don’t add cornflour or cornstarch to rhubarb, it is horrible. You have to cook the rhubarb so long to get the starch to thicken it spoils the flavour of the rhubarb. If you want to make a pie or crumble using the puree just add less water, it will be thick enough. Rhubarb pies are actually best cooked with raw rhubarb pieces– the texture and flavour is far better and the pastry stays crisp on the top and soft underneath.
Jellies – Rhubarb puree is delicious mixed with pureed raw strawberries and made into a jelly. All you need is gelatine. Other pureed fruits also go well – particularly raspberries [sieved] but strawberries seem to work the best
Rhubarb crumble – loads of recipes on the Internet. My Dad’s favourite desert
Rhubarb and cardamon – Rhubarb goes well with cardamom. Use the cardamon seeds and simmer them in a sugar syrup for about 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool, then strain the syrup and add to a rhubarb puree. This is a dessert that can be eaten with double cream or home-made ice cream.
Rhubarb and orange – Rhubarb puree with freshly squeezed orange juice, and a little grated orange zest is a delicious combination. If the rhubarb is cooked with some brown sugar to taste [precise amounts cannot be given as it depends on the tartness of the rhubarb] this is extra good. My Mum used to add butter [quite a lot of butter] to the rhubarb and brown sugar, then add the orange juice and zest and use it to fill open flans. The butter sets to produce a sort of melt in the mouth filling
Rhubarb and yoghurt – add the rhubarb puree to yoghurt and add either honey, or sugar or maple syrup as the sweetener. Greek yoghurt or thick creamy yoghurt works best with this.
Rhubarb and ginger – Rhubarb and ginger together are not only delicious they must be one of the most medicinally active foods we can eat. Eat with cream or ice cream. This can also be used as a sauce with savoury dishes.
My Mum used to make a Rhubarb and ginger chutney that was exceptionally good with cheese of all sorts, ham, pork pies and other cold meats. The following is not a bad approximation of my Mum’s recipe [it came from Nigella Lawson’s website]
1 kilogram rhubarb washed and cut into pieces
950 ml malt vinegar
4 cloves garlic (peeled and finely chopped)
545 grams raisins
455 grams dates (chopped into quarters)
470 grams demerara or brown sugar
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
115 grams ginger chopped finely
Chopped onion [2 onions]
Dried apricots also chopped – to taste
Put the rhubarb and garlic into a very large saucepan , pour over the vinegar.
Boil with the lid off until the rhubarb is soft. Then add everything else on the list and boil gently, lid off, for about 45 mins giving an occasional stir.
The chutney is ready when you can drag a wooden spoon through the middle and still leave a kind of parting of the chutney sea.
Leave the chutney to cool and then spoon into sterilised jars, using oven gloves to hold the glass.
Once you have filled the jars almost to the top leave to cool slightly and then put a wax paper on, then the lids. The paper is to protect any metal lids from the acid. If the lid is plastic the paper is not needed.
Leave for AT LEAST 3 months
Rhubarb wine is worth making because it is so pretty.
It is quite acidic and I prefer it slightly sparkling as a summer drink.
The following was a recipe from the Daily Telegraph
For every 500 ml (17.5 fl oz) of juice obtained, add 300 g (10.5 oz) granulated sugar
You will also need
Add the ginger, lemon zest and juice. Pour the boiling water over the crushed fruit and stir well.
Cover with a clean cloth and leave for 10 days.
Strain the liquid into another deep bowl or pan using a jelly bag or fine sieve.
Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Transfer to a demijohn.
Cover the opening of the demijohn with a clean cloth, folded over several times like a fan, and leave for 10 days to ferment. If this does not happen naturally, add yeast and leave for another 12 hours.
Bung the demijohn securely, leave in a cool, dark place for 12 months. Siphon into sterilized bottles.
Make in early spring or for as long as rhubarb is in season. It can be drunk straight away or will keep for up to a year after bottling.
References and further reading
- Royal Agricultural Society of England. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, Volume 16; Volume 41. 1880. Page 479.
- Heritage Rhubarb Plants, historical varieties cultivated for sale from Brandy Carr Nurseries. Brandy Carr Nurseries. Wakefield, Yorkshire.
- Defra News Release. Yorkshire rhubarb joins Europe's protected food elite. 25 February 2010. Ref: 38 / 10.
- Grigson, Sophie. My resistance to rhubarb crumbles. London: The Independent. 19 February 1994.
- Walker, Charlie. Wakefield: its times and its peoples. Wakefield, Yorkshire: Walker. 2000. Page 143-144.
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