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Rustic Rhubarb

By Audrey Stallsmith

rheum officinale

The large-leafed rhubarb and cabbage plants slept too, their broad limp surfaces hanging in the sun like half-closed umbrellas.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Since I'm one of those peculiar people who prefer apples tart and chocolate bittersweet, I love the tangy taste of rhubarb. So I was fortunate to be born in a rural area where "pieplant" is one of the rites of passage between spring and summer.

Although some country cooks combine it with the strawberries that ripen at about the same time, I prefer my rhubarb pie adulterated only with raisins--and a little sugar, of course. My nieces and nephews like to suck on the raw stalks, but the unsweetened flavor is a bit too acidic even for me!

The plant's original title, rheum rhabarbarum, derives from Rha--an ancient name for the Volga River--and barbarum--the Roman name for any of the "barbaric" regions occupied by non-Romans. Rheum may have come from the Greek rheo ("to flow"), in reference to rhubarb's laxative effect!

The root was originally imported into Europe from China. Since it came by way of Persia, however, the medicinal rheum palmatum was often mistakenly known as Turkish Rhubarb. In George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Mrs. Tulliver opines that "it 'ud be better for sister Glegg, if she'd go to the doctor sometimes, instead o' chewing Turkey rhubarb whenever there's anything the matter with her."

The plant apparently became very popular. In Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie writes that Nana "believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf. . ." In Moby Dick, Melville speaks of spermaceti as once "only to be had from the druggist, as you nowadays buy an ounce of rhubarb." In Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Catherine reflects that poison can't be procured "like rhubarb, from every druggist."

The common or garden rhubarb grown today is rheum officinale or rhaponticum. It is probably most popular in the country because its clumps of huge leaves make it impractical for city gardens. Those leaves bear some resemblance to burdock, but are larger and glossier--up to two feet across. Burdock was, in fact, sometimes known as Robin Hood's Rhubarb.

Although rhubarb leaves have been eaten as greens in the past, it was a risky practice since oxalic acid renders that greenery somewhat poisonous. Shysters occasionally sold the leaves as fake tobacco too. Whether or not they are more toxic than tobacco is probably open to debate!

Theoretically, it would take a large amount of oxalic acid to kill a person. But some digestive systems seem to be more sensitive to it than others. Since people have died from eating rhubarb leaves, I would recommend that you get your greens elsewhere.

Because even the stalks are high in oxalates, persons with a tendency to gout or kidney stones shouldn't eat rhubarb. Pregnant women should avoid it also, since it can cause contractions.

On the positive side, the fruit can relieve both diarrhea and constipation. Since it contains a large number of pain-relieving compounds, it reduces the inflammation common with skin eruptions, arthritis, or toothache. It has also been known to inhibit tumor growth, decrease cholesterol, staunch the bleeding of ulcers, and cure jaundice by stimulating the liver. In Cervantes' Don Quixote a clergyman jokes that "Don Belianis. . .hath need of a dose of rhubarb to purge off the mass of bile with which he is inflamed."

When the Chinese threatened to cut off the supply of rhubarb during the Opium Wars, the threat was taken seriously. The plant was, after all, considered an ultimate, almost miraculous, cure for dysentery (an intestinal inflammation characterized by bloody diarrhea).

In my opinion, however, rhubarb justifies its existence simply by what Culpeper calls its "fine tart or sourish taste." I find that being a rural "rube-barbarian" has its compensations!