Rhubarb, eaten like a fruit in the US culinary culture, is botanically a vegetable. The crop – the stem of the plant – is extremely tart, however when it is cooked with sugar, it resembles stewed fruit.
Rhubarb takes its name from the Latin rha barbarum. Rhubarb grew along the banks of the river Rha, the ancient name of the Volga, which was considered foreign, or barbarian territory. Thus, rhubarb means “from the barbarian, Rha.” Its botanical name, Rheum rhabarbarum, tells us that rhubarb is of the buckwheat family.
With its big heart-shaped crinkled leaves and red-tinted stalks. rhubarb is popular with gardeners because it is easy to grow, its high concentration of oxalate in the leaves naturally repels pests, and it is one of the first edibles to appear in the spring garden. The oxalic acid in rhubarb stems is even helpful for scouring pots.
Rhubarb’s heroism reaches outside the garden. When a hole was discovered in the Earth’s ozone layer in the mid-80s, researchers attributed it largely to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerant and aerosols. Conventional methods for breaking down CFC’s were costly and dangerous. However, in 1995, two Yale scientists discovered that oxalic acid, found in rhubarb, helped neutralize CFC’s.
In traditional Chinese medicine, rhubarb roots have been used as a laxative for several millennia. It was one of the first Chinese medicines to be imported to the West from China. Today, researchers have identified over 40 polyphenol compounds found in rhubarb, including the disease-fighting pigments that make blueberries so nutritious. Though the versatile vegetable is a harbinger of Spring at Mission Pie, Rhubarb’s gifts and talents clearly extend well beyond pie.