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Is it a fruit or vegetable?
Part 1; The history of rhubarb
Anna May Kinney

Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a plant name for the many different species of Rheum. This lovely plant with its huge, crinkled, heart shaped leaves and red-tinted stalks, is one of our earliest spring vegetables. Yes, I said vegetable, actually a close relative of garden sorrel, and therefore a member of the vegetable family.

If rhubarb were a person, its identity crisis would be responsible for years of therapy. It is often referred to as an "uncommon vegetable", even the cookbook "The Joy of Cooking" says this about rhubarb "Only by the wildest stretch of the imagination can rhubarb be included in this [fruit] chapter, but its tart flavor and its customary uses make it a reasonable facsimile, when cooked, of fruit."

The earliest records of this bitter vegetable dates back to 2700 B.C., growing in the wild in the mountains of the Western and North-western provinces of China and in the adjoining Tibetan territory, where it is prized for it's medicinal qualities.

In Oriental medicine it is used as a laxative, antiphlogistic, and haemostatic in the treatment of constipation, diarrhea, jaundice, gastro-intestinal hemorrhage, menstrual disorders, conjunctivitis, traumatic injuries, superficial sores and ulcers. It is also applied externally for thermal burns. In TCM terms it drains heat and accumulations from the Yang-ming level, clears damp heat, cools the blood, invigorates blood, eliminates stagnant blood and clears toxic heat and purges knotted heat and stool from the colon.

Even without using it as a medicine, a person eating rhubarb in the spring would obtain a few health benefits. After a long cold winter when many people are low on vitamin C, our bodies quickly absorb rhubarb's high vitamin C levels. In today's world, where food is quickly transported from one region to another, this may not sound important. But, in the days before air travel; winter often meant months without fresh fruit and little sunlight, perfect conditions for developing scurvy. Rhubarb is like a spring tonic, supplying the body's need for vitamin C; while it's high fiber rids an often-sluggish body of winter's ills.

A planting of rhubarb is recorded in Italy in 1608 and 20-30 years later in Europe. In 1778 rhubarb is recorded as a food plant in Europe. The earliest known usage of rhubarb as a food appeared as a filling for tarts & pies. Some suspect that this was a hybrid of the Chinese variety of rhubarb; which is still used in Asian medicine.

It was not until the 18th century that rhubarb was grown for culinary purposes in Britain and North America. Early records of rhubarb in North America identify an unnamed Maine gardener as having obtained seed or rootstock from Europe in the period between 1790-1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts where its popularity spread and by 1822 it was sold in produce markets

Over the last two hundred years, we have come to see rhubarb reach great popularity. It has a unique flavor; you either love or hate it. Bakers enjoy mixing rhubarb with different types of berries; turning them into delicious tarts, pies and cakes. As children, most of us remember picking rhubarb stalks and chewing on them till our lips went numb and tingly.

We where warned at an early age that rhubarb leave are poisonous, but how poisonous are they? All parts of rhubarb contain oxalate, but the leaves have the highest amounts, around 0.5%. A 145 lb. person would have to eat quite a large serving, like 5 kg. (11 lbs.), to get the 25 grams of oxalic acid that would cause death. While the stalks do have a bit of oxalate it is such a small amount that they are considered safe.

It is good to remember that children are smaller and it would take a lot fewer rhubarb leaves to kill a child or pet, even livestock have died after grazing on these deadly leaves and while it takes quite a bit to kill, even a very small amount will make both grownups and children ill.

Symptoms of Oxalic Acid Poisoning
The first thing you might notice is total body weakness, burning in the mouth, difficulty breathing, burning in the throat, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Advanced reactions on the nervous system are convulsions, coma and could result in death from cardiovascular collapse.

Here are a few precautions for rhubarb gardening
1.Trim leaves from stalk immediately.
2.Don't use stalks from frost bitten plants.
3.Wash the stalks well.
4.Children should be taught to eat only the rhubarb stalks, preferably under supervision

Other uncommon uses for rhubarb;
Rhubarb used as a hair dye: Simmer three tbsp. of rhubarb root in two cups of water for fifteen minutes, let stand over night, strain, and rinse through hair. It supposedly gives a golden tone to those with light-brown or blond hair, although I've never tried it myself.

Whether you call it a vegetable or a fruit, rhubarb has gained so much popularity that people around the world are celebrating its tangy sweet flavor during their annual Rhubarb festivals which have become popular from small town Colorado to the Gold Coast of Australia.