Rhubarbs are herbaceous perennial plants with large triangular shaped leaves. They have small flowers grouped in large compound leafy greenish-white to rose-red inflorescences.
Although the leaves are toxic, various parts of the plants have culinary and medicinal uses.
Rhubarb has been used for medical purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years and appears in The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic which legend attributes to the mythical Shen Nung, the Yan Emperor, but is thought to have been compiled in about 2700 BC.
The plant has grown wild along the banks of the River Volga for centuries but this variety was known to the West as Russian rhubarb, as opposed to the more efficacious Chinese rhubarb. The expense of transportation across Asia caused rhubarb to be highly expensive in medieval Europe where it was several times the price of other valuable herbs and spices such as cinnamon, opium and saffron. The merchant explorer, Marco Polo, was therefore much interested to find the plant being grown and harvested in the mountains of Tangut province.
The term rhubarb is a combination of the Greek barbarum which refers both to the plant and to the River Volga. Rhubarb first came to the United States in the 1820s, entering the country in Maine Massachusetts and moving westwards with the European American settlers.
Rhubarb is grown primarily for its fleshy petioles commonly known as rhubarb sticks or stalks. The use of rhubarb stems as food is a relatively recent innovation, first recorded in 17th century England, after affordable sugar became available to common people, and reaching a peak between the 20th century’s two world wars.
The word rhubarb is often used by actors talking quietly to one another on stage to simulate real conversation, since it contains no harsh sounding consonants and is hard to detect.
The roots and stems are rich in anthraquinones, such as emodin and rhein. These substances are cathartic.
Rhubarb roots are used in traditional Chinese medicine; rhubarb also appears in medieval Arabic and European prescriptions. The rhizomes (‘roots’) contain stilbenoid compounds (including rhaponticin) which seem to lower blood glucose levels.