In early spring it’s always exciting to watch perennials emerging from the soil after their winter slumbers, but few plants stage as dramatic an entrance as rhubarb does, with its bold, intricately-crinkled leaves rocketing through their bud sheaths, then quickly unfurling to catch every available ray. Like corn, rhubarb is one of those plants that you can almost “hear” growing.
A member of the buckwheat (Polygonaceae) family, the genus Rheum contains about 50 species of herbaceous perennials native from Mongolia and Siberia west to Iran and Asia Minor.
While gardeners prize some members of the clan for their ornamental attributes (stately perennials like Rheum ‘Ace of Hearts’ and R. palmatum ‘Atrosanguineum’ for example), most of us grow the more common garden variety for its delicious leaf petioles (stalks) that are ready to harvest by early summer, long before other crops have ripened.
Garden rhubarb (R. ×hybridum) is an ancient, complex hybrid originating largely from R. rhaponticum, and to a lesser degree, R. palmatum. It was probably brought to Europe accidentally in place of medicinal rhubarb (R. officinalis), that has been cultivated for its root, which contains a purgative called chrysarobin.
By the Middle Ages, many species and hybrids were being grown across Europe, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century and the increasing availability of cane sugar that rhubarb moved from the medicine chest to the dining room table.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is often credited with introducing garden rhubarb to North America, but we should really thank the early settlers who brought plants with them from their homelands, so that by the 19th century rhubarb was a common crop from coast to coast.
These days, it’s available frozen at supermarkets throughout the year, but nothing beats harvesting your own fresh rhubarb, and happily, it’s quite easy to grow.