When describing the flavour of rhubarb, astringent is an understatement. It's best dipped in sugar and eaten fresh or boiled down and paired with strawberries to brighten up a cake, pie or even a bowl of cream. Yet, rhubarb is more than just strawberry’s side kick. Rhubarb is the protagonist of sweet spring flavours. Read on to find out 9 facts you might not know about this delightful vegetable…or is it a fruit?
- Rhubarb is NOT native to Canada. This seems crazy because Canada has excellent conditions for this cold-hardy crop. However, rhubarb originally grew in Asia and later exported to Europe by way of the Silk Road trade route, eventually making its way to North America.
- Rhubarb is a laxative. 3000 years ago, rhubarb was used specifically for medicinal purposes. It was dried and consumed as a purgative (cleansing of the bowels), a carminative (reduce excess gas), and for ulcer treatment.
- Rhubarb saved the 1770’s Canadian fur-traders from dying! Isolated on forts with a fibre-less diet of fish and meat, prolonged constipation was a major problem and could be deadly. Rhubarb grew well and became a necessity in the tradesmen’s medicinal forts due to its laxative effects and high vitamin C content, preventing any form of constipation or scurvy from occurring.
- The redder the rhubarb does NOT mean it will be sweeter rhubarb. The deep red stalk varieties may make for brighter dishes and a nicer presentation, but the concentrated colour means a more tart rhubarb. The older, more traditional variety of green stalks are more mellow in flavour.
- Rhubarb can grow up to 5 feet tall! Rhubarb giants are common in Alaska where the summer days are very long and the extra hours of sun help the rhubarb grow.
- The term rhubarb means a heated dispute. Ever wonder what background actors on stage are yelling about during a play? In the 1930’s, the word “rhubarb” would be repeated as their go-to ‘conversation’. This method was so popular that the Merriam Webster dictionary added a heated dispute to the definition of rhubarb.
- Rhubarb leaves can be poisonous. If eaten in large doses, the leaves can cause throat closure due to their high levels of oxalic acid, which is an acid used in stain remover and metal polish.
- 90% of the world’s sweetest rhubarb is located in The Rhubarb Triangle of West Yorkshire, England. England was the first country to grow rhubarb for eating (not just medicinal purposes). The variety of rhubarb called Victorian Rhubarb was easy to grow, reliable, and consistently sweet and tender. So began the jams, jellies, custards, and tarts.
- Rhubarb is a fruit! But not botanically speaking. Rheum rhabarbarum is a part of the buckwheat family. It's also known as the smartweed family which also includes sorrel. It is unclear how Canada deems the plant. However, a New York court ruling in 1947 made it an official fruit in the United States.
Go ahead and pick up rhubarb (in our vegetable section) so you too can dip those leggy red stalks in sugar for a quick sweet treat. Or mix up a savoury dish with a quick pickled rhubarb. Maybe try a rhubarb reduction to add to your oatmeals, creams, or pies. Or even this classic pairing with strawberries in our latest Strawberry Rhubarb Galette video.
Here are a few tips on growing and storing rhubarb:
Growing Rhubarb: Rhubarb is one of the first plants we see after a cold long winter and a tough plant at that! It is really difficult to kill once it becomes established making for a great beginner gardener plant. Harvest by twisting the stalks and pulling.
Storing Rhubarb: Store the trimmed stalks in a mesh bag or loose plastic in the crisper drawer. Wash only before using it. To freeze, cut the rhubarb stalks into 1-inch chunks and seal in an airtight bag. Frozen rhubarb will keep for up to a year.