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Rhubarb, also called sweet round-leaved dock or pieplant, is usually thought of as a fruit, but it is actually one of the few perennial vegetables in existence. Ordinary garden rhubarb carries the botanical name of Rheum rhaponticum, though there are other members of this botanical group that are also used for medicinal purposes. Chinese rhubarb, which is called da huang in traditional
Chinese medicine, has the botanical name Rheum palmatum. Chinese rhubarb has a much stronger taste and properties than the common American variety. Rhubarb is a member of the same family as buckwheat, the Polygo-naceae family. It originally came from Mongolia in northern Asia, but was long ago introduced to both India and Turkey. It was formerly called India or Turkey rhubarb.
In the 1760s, in England, an Oxfordshire pharmacist named Hayward began developing and growing the type of rhubarb most commonly grown today. Records indicate that rhubarb was first grown as a market crop in England in 1810. But because it was unknown, few people purchased it. In the next one hundred years, its popularity grew tremendously.
The average life expectancy of rhubarb plants is five to eight years. Although rhubarb produces seeds, they can give birth to plants remarkably different from the parent plant. For this reason, rhubarb cultivation is usually done by cutting and replanting pieces of its large storage root.
Rhubarb is an early plant that is extremely hardy. It is relatively immune to attack by insects or disease. It puts out smaller feeder roots in early spring; even in colder regions, reddish bud-like projections appear in early April. These develop rapidly into long thick succulent stalks that can grow from 1-3 ft (approximately 30-90 cm) in length. Rhubarb stalks are generally ready for harvesting by late May. One very large spade-shaped leaf with curled edges grows at the tip of each stalk. There is considerable evidence that these leaves should be considered poisonous due to their high content of salts of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is a powerful but toxic cleaning agent. Although M. Grieve reports that people have eaten both the leaves and the newly formed rhubarb buds without any problem, she also mentions several sources that listed several cases of death by rhubarb leaf poisoning around 1910. Rhubarb stalks have a tangy, sweet-sour taste much prized for the making of desserts, especially pies. Rhubarb stalks are a good source of ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
Chinese rhubarb produces a yellowish root with a distinctive network of white lines running along the outer surface. Chinese rhubarb root is much larger and more firmly textured than its Western relatives, and has much stronger laxative qualities, but it is also less astringent. The root of Western garden rhubarb is smaller, spongier, and is usually pinkish in color. It has sporadic star-shaped spots evident along its transverse sections.
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