Other names: Pie Plant
Availability: February through June.
Source: United States.
Handling Tips: 35° F, may mist/ice occasionally.
General Information: Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum L.) is a cool season, perennial vegetable, grown for its leafstalks that have a unique tangy taste, generally used for pies and sauces. Rhubarb was first cultivated in the Far East more than 2,000 years ago. It was initially grown for medicinal purposes, and not until the 18th century was it grown for culinary use in Britain and America.
Although the leaves are toxic, various parts of the plants are purported to have medicinal and culinary uses. In the kitchen, fresh raw stalks are crisp (similar to celery) with a strong tart taste. Most commonly the plant's stalks are cooked with sugar and used in pies and other desserts. It pairs well with strawberries for an exquisite combination of sweet and tart. It is also delicious stewed. Good source of calcium and potassium.
There are two primary varieties of rhubarb: Hothouse and field grown. The hothouse variety is generally a little lighter in color and less 'stringy'. Hothouse rhubarb, which is cultivated in Washington and Michigan is harvested from January through June. Field grown usually hits the market from April through June or July.
Identification note: Rhubarb is usually considered to be a vegetable; however, in 1947 a court in New York, NY decided that since it was used in the United States as a fruit, it was to be counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties.
Culinary Note: Never eat the leaves, raw or cooked, as they contain toxins. Cut the leaves off and discard as soon as preparation begins. Rinse the stalks and trim off the tops and bottoms of each piece. With the more mature stalks – or field grown rhubarb, remove the outer skin by peeling from the base of each stalk.
Storage: Fresh rhubarb can be stored for two to four weeks at 32-36 degrees F and 95% relative humidity. Store in perforated polyethylene bags.
History: Earliest records date back to 2700 BC in China where Rhubarb was cultivated for medicinal purposes (its purgative qualities). According to Lindley's Treasury of Botany, the technical name of the genus (Rheum) is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga, on whose banks the plants grow. There were those who called it Rha Ponticum, and others Rheum or Rhabarbarum. Others derive the name from the Greek rheo ('to flow'), in allusion to the purgative properties of the root. One of the most famous pharmacologists of ancient times the Greek Discorides, spoke of a root known as "rha" or "rheon", which came from the Bosphorus (the winding strait that separates Europe and Asia).
Marco Polo, who knew all about the Chinese rhubarb rhizome, talked about it at length in the accounts of his travels in China. So much interest on the past of Marco Polo is accounted for by the fact that in those days Venice was an extremely important trading center, and that as a result of eastern Arabic influence, Chinese rhubarb was already widely used in European pharmacy, especially in the school of Salerno. The roots of the Chinese type are still used in medicine. A planting of rhubarb is recorded in Italy in 1608 and 20-30 years later in Europe. In 1778 rhubarb is recorded as a food plant in Europe. The earliest known usage of rhubarb as a food appeared as a filling for tarts & pies. Some suspect that this was a hybrid of the Chinese variety of rhubarb.
Early records of rhubarb in America identify an unnamed Maine gardener as having obtained seed or root stock from Europe in the period between 1790-1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts where its popularity spread and by 1822 it was sold in produce markets.