Misunderstood Rhubarb

Misunderstood Rhubarb.  A vegetable treated like a fruit. Understated.  What do you know about it?

Ad for rhubarb from a now defunct rhubarb company in Washington State Try this quick quiz (T/F).

  1. Bright red stalks and green/red stalks are equally ripe.
  2. Its leaves are poisonous and its stalks are not.
  3. It requires a few weeks of cool temperatures (under 5 C or 40 F) and moderate summers to grow.
  4. Always pull rhubarb stalks out of the ground – don’t cut them.
  5. For thousands of years, rhubarb was used in traditional medicine, not as food.



The COVID 19 pandemic and global lockdown has changed many people’s attitudes towards food security.  I started to wonder what plants could be grown locally, preserved easily, offered good enough nutrition, and could handle cold weather. Rhubarb came to mind: it is an undemanding perennial herb, and almost a perfect match for the cold winters and moderate summers in most parts of Western Canada[i].

The story of this vegetable treated as a fruit, begins with its Latin name Rha barbarum.  Rha is the ancient name of the Volga River in Russia; and barbarum means “not from here” (i.e. not from Russia but from foreign parts).  Several historical references speculate that it was brought from Central Asia down the Volga River by Greek traders, and thence to Russia, Turkey, and England [ii].

Dried rhubarb root was prescribed for its cathartic properties (it is a strong laxative, to be precise).  The stalks began to be used for culinary purposes when sugar started to become more available in the late 1700s.

The intrusion of sugar into the story of rhubarb hits on the transformation of an entire society stretching across the globe. Colonialism, slavery, and sugar plantations are all facets of the topic that cannot be easily dismissed in one sentence.

In BC food history, rhubarb was part of the Hudson’s Bay Forts provisioning efforts for its nutritional value. It contains fibre and small amounts of micronutrients such as Vitamins C and K to help prevent nutritional deficiencies.

Rhubarb was also important to newcomers and homesteaders who brought rhubarb crowns with them.  When the homesteaders moved on, and their farms crumbled back into the ground, the rhubarb patch often persisted. The same is true of modern-day cities; every time a house in an older neighbourhood is demolished, the rhubarb often remains.

A recent revival of interest in heirloom rhubarb cultivars has led to requests for rhubarb stories.  “Purges and Pies[iv], an article by Norma Kerby in Northword Magazine tells the tale of one man’s rhubarb and his desire to pass it on. Kerby’s request for stories is still current. See her contact information in the cited article.

The next two blogs will cover many aspects of rhubarb, including how to grow and propagate rhubarb, heirloom varieties, why crowns are better than seeds, and some prize recipes, both savoury and sweet. We won’t get to the topics of Gregory’s Powder or a Monty Python song about rhubarb by John Cleese.  That will be left for the future.

One last point – the quiz items are all TRUE!

[i] https://www.plantmaps.com/koppen-climate-classification-map-canada.php If you are interested in plant hardiness, see the interactive maps for specific provinces. As a reference point,  Edmonton and Prince George, two northern cities I’ve lived in are both Zone 4A. Vernon, BC is Zone 5B

[ii] https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/r/rhubar14.html#tur See this site for specific and fascinating  information on many different types of rhubarb

[iii]  https://www.history.com/news/rhubarb-a-love-affair  This article by Beth Dunn includes information that will be covered in the next couple of rhubarb blogs – but look ahead if you want to make rhubarb fool!

[iv] http://northword.ca/features/purges-and-pies-the-strange-story-of-northern-rhubarb




8 Responses to Misunderstood Rhubarb

  1. Judy June 10, 2020 at 9:02 am #

    Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid (as do the stems) in relatively high amounts, however a 155-lb person would have to eat 2-5 kg of leaves to receive what is considered to be a lethal dose, depending on the level of oxalic acid in the leaves, which makes rhubarb leaves toxic but not ‘extremely toxic.’ Deaths attributed to eating rhubarb leaves are extremely rare.

    Rhubarb was also known as ‘Pie Plant’ on the Canadian prairies.

    • Mary Leah de Zwart June 10, 2020 at 1:02 pm #

      Hi Judy – thanks for your comment. I’ve read a number of sources about oxalic acid and oxalates – and decided to go with “extremely toxic” knowing full well that someone would likely take me to task. Individuals vary in their reactions. I’m not a food chemistry specialist, and erring on the side of safety seemed to be a good idea. I would like to hear from a specialist in this area.
      As for pie plant, that will be included in the next post. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Dawn June 11, 2020 at 6:19 pm #

        The rhubarb leaves are toxic and non- edible but they do an amazing job of cleaning the stainless steel cover of a BBQ. The oxalic acid cleans and shines the surface very well.

  2. Debbie June 10, 2020 at 1:35 pm #

    We love rhubarb here! Thank you for this interesting and informative article!

  3. Marci June 11, 2020 at 8:21 pm #

    Apparently, rhubarb still warranted a place in the British school curricula in the 1960s and 70s. One lesson my husband remembers word for word decades later is that “75% of the commercial rhubarb grown in England is grown in the west riding of Yorkshire.” Interest sparks enthusiasm. A taste for all things rhubarb helps!

    As a child, my friends and I tested our metal outdoors in three ways: walking barefoot on stony paths and through fields and forests alike, foraging for food and building some kind of natural shelter, and pulling out stalks of rhubarb to wipe off and eat ‘as is’ to strengthen out resolve that we could do ANYTHING.

    Thank you for your article, it was very enjoyable.

  4. Philip Atkinson June 12, 2020 at 2:42 pm #

    As boys my brothers and I delighted in ‘rhubarb thrashing.’ Stripped to the waist you pull up a stalk of rhubarb with a substantial leaf and tear around the garden thrashing one another on the torso. A tradition I proudly taught my son and his pals here in Canada. 🙂

  5. Reta October 4, 2020 at 8:40 am #

    I live in central British Columbia, I harvested over 120 lbs of rhubarb this year, I quit pulling it late July. I recall heating from my mother that you don’t harvest rhubarb late into the summer. If true, what would the reason be? I freeze it for about 6 weeks and then make rhubarb wine and save some for baking.

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