Near Eastern Plant in American Pies
Rhubarb's economic and dietary importance in America is limited, but it is a rather unusual plant among our common vegetables and there is widespread interest in growing it.
Our word "rhubarb" comes from the French rhubarbe, which is a contraction of the Late Latin term rheubarbarum, referring to a species of rhubarb called rheum barbarum. In America rhubarb is also called "pieplant" because of its common use in making pies.
About a dozen so-called species of rhubarb have been described from various regions in Eurasia, but little is known about their relationships or origins. Our most popular varieties belong to the species Rheum rhaponticum, which is believed native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Other edible species are found wild in middle Asia and in China.
Only the Stalks Are Edible
The earliest records of the use of rhubarb date back to about 2700 B.C. in China, where the root was used for medicinal purposes. The root of the Chinese type is still used in medicine. The rhubarb root contains a number of potent substances that would cause violent disturbances to the digestive system if eaten.
Only the fleshy leaf stalks, the enormous petioles, of the rhubarb are edible. The leaf blades or leaves definitely should not be eaten. They contain harmful substances that sometimes are present in amounts large enough to cause serious illness, or even death, if eaten.
Rhubarb of the garden type was introduced into Europe from the East relatively late. It was cultivated at Padua, Italy, about 1608, and some 25 to 30 years later seeds of it were obtained for planting in England. In the early 1700's there were several references to the culture of the plant in Europe and England, but not until 1778 was it definitely recorded as a food plant there. Then it was used for making tarts and pies.
An amateur gardener in Maine apparently got rhubarb from Europe about 1790 to 1800 and introduced it to market gardeners in Massachusetts. By 1806 it was used in New England tarts and pies, but not extensively. By 1822 it was generally grown in Massachusetts and was sold in the vegetable markets there. Seed of rhubarb was listed in an American seed catalogue in 1828.
Various rhubarbs were introduced into Europe and England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from China and India.
A U. S. Patent Office Report* of 1861 described how the Afghans near Kabul blanched the leaf stalks of a wild species of rhubarb. As the sprouts emerged, loose gravel was piled over them, forcing the stalks to grow through as much as one and one-half feet of gravel. Sometimes earthen jars were inverted over the plants, forcing the stalks to grow white and crookedly.
Victoria and Linnaeus have been the commonest varieties of rhubarb for generations. They are both large, productive kinds having leaf stalks that are light green or tinged and streaked with crimson. In recent years definitely crimson or "red" varieties have been in demand because of their attractiveness. Among these are Ruby and MacDonald.
Grows Best in North
Rhubarb is a perennial. It is not adapted to hot climates and actually requires a good winter rest, imposed by a long cold period, in order to thrive year after year. In North America it grows to perfection in the northernmost States and in southern Canada.
Under favorable conditions some varieties will produce almost incredibly large plants-great clumps of leaves with leaf stalks up to three feet long and as thick as a boy's wrist. The leaf blades are sometimes two to two and one-half feet across.
In the spring large seed stalks arise to a height of three to four feet. Gardeners usually cut these seed stalks out as soon as they appear, because seed production is believed to interfere with the best possible growth of leaf stalks.
Rhubarb, like many other horticultural plants, does not come true to seed. The only way to keep varieties "pure" and uniform is to propagate them vegetatively, by dividing the clumps of plants.
A "piece" of rhubarb plant for planting in the garden must contain some of the large fleshy root together with some of the compact underground stem structure and buds from which the leaves arise. It takes about three years for a newly propagated plant to reach a fairly productive stage.
A few gardeners grow fields of rhubarb for "forcing." After the plants have become large and sturdy in the field, the entire underground parts are taken from the field in the late winter or very early spring before growth starts and planted in special heated houses. In these warm, dimly lighted structures leaf stalks grow rapidly and attain fine quality.
*Before the establishment of the U. S. Department of Agriculture during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, our Government's early efforts in agriculture were conducted by the Patent Office.