GLORIOUS HISTORIES: Tales from the Traditional Kitchen Garden – Rhubarb


Rheum rhabarbarum LINNAEUS
Origin. Probably China
All rather a mistake really, for the plants first brought to Europe in the sixteenth century as an important medicinal herb turned out to be the wrong species. The correct one (Rheum palmatum) was eventually brought here in the eighteenth century, but it has long dropped out of use (though sometimes seen as a decorative), while the first comer is now found in almost every garden.
A plant called rheum or rhabarbarum was known to the Greeks, probably as dried roots imported from southern Russia or China. Dioscorides used it for chest, stomach and liver complaints as well as ringworm (76). The ancient Chinese used it too, though a herbal of 2700 BC suggests its use only as a laxative (93). By the sixteenth century, at least in western Europe, it had become known as a cure for the two main venereal diseases (the most serious a recent import), and large quantities of the root were imported via Izmir (76, 93). Two ounces of dried root and half an ounce of parsley were boiled in two quarts of water, and the solution then reduced by two-thirds. The resultant bitter drink was taken several times a day (76). However, the truly officinal species are R. officinalis and R. palmatum, but the plants brought out of China, either via Goa in 1535 or direct from China in the following century, were of another species that we now all know and love. Its inability to offer either a cure for disease or a laxative was early recognized; Gerard called it the ‘bastard rhubard’. It became used as a pot-herb, though it seems to have been the leaves that were used – sharp-tasting, like sorrel (66). Presumably they were used in small quantities, for a friend of Gerard’s tried to cure an unwary butcher’s boy who had an ague. Four leaves of the herb ‘wrought extremely downwards and upwards within an hower after, and never ceased until night. In the end, the strength of the boie overcame the force of the phisicke.’ No doubt he survived, even if still with his ague. Herbalists who stuck to the book and used the dried and imported root, used it against ‘Wamblings of the gut’, convulsions and cramps, sciatica, ‘Yeoring’ and mange, and to cleanse ‘the bodie from pale and wan spots (or the Morphew), and bloody fire’ (26). At the end of the eighteenth century, the root’s main property seems to have been as a laxative, and the value of the imports was estimated at £200,000 a year. However, seeds of the officinal species reached London from Russia in 1762, and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce began to encourage cultivation. In 1791 Sir William Fordyce was awarded a gold medal by the Society for planting out three hundred rhubarb plants, and later prizewinners planted up to a thousand (57, 76). The roots were kiln-dried, though they were found by various hospitals to be slightly less effective than the imported material. As a bonus, it was also found that the roots could be made to yield a fine red dye, which, before the advent of synthetic dyes, had been a very expensive colour to produce.
However, by the time that landowners were winning gold medals, Rheum rhabarbarum was already being forced for the London fruit markets, the petioles being used for early spring desserts. The discovery that the leaf stalks were delicious to eat, and did not have any unfortunate effect on the innards, seems to have taken place in France in the eighteenth century, though French cooks did produce a rhubarb marmalade in which the stalks were cooked in honey (66) – used as a very mild laxative and which might suggest an earlier, and pre-cane-sugar, date.

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About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! or, more fun, have a look at
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