The word rhubarb has been taken into common usage meaning: nonsense or rubbish. This is said to be related to the practice of actors silently mouthing the word to simulate background conversation. As such the word rhubarb could be used to describe the confusion surrounding the introduction and usage of the species in western Europe.
The standard story of the introduction of rhubarb is quite simple. A plant know as rhubarb has been used by European herbalists since ancient times and dates from at least the Greeks, who probably imported dried roots from southern Russia or China. Its use as a laxative in Chinese medicine can be traced to 2700 BC. By the sixteenth century early European pioneers of South America were starting to return, not with the fabled gold of El Dorado, but with syphilis. The race was then on to introduce and cultivate rhubarb as an infusion of its roots was thought to cure both syphilis and gonorrhoea. Marco Polo had hyped rhubarb to such an extent that the trade in dried rhubarb roots rivalled that in spice and opium in importance. Peter the Great set up a state monopoly in rhubarb and the Chinese prohibited the export of its seeds.
At this point in the story, 1573, we are told that a mistake was made and instead of introducing the supposed medically active ‘Chinese rhubarb’, Rheum palmatum, plants of ‘garden rhubarb’ Rheum rhaponticum were introduced. This impostor is what we now recognise as something eaten with custard, but at the time it was cultivated only for its roots. Quite quickly it was realised that this new rhubarb was unable to live up to its reputation, and the Herbalist Gerard, refers to it as ‘bastard rhubarb’. It is easy to imagine that you would not be overly impressed when your long-awaited cure for syphilis failed! Even so, it was almost two hundred years later in 1763, that the real ‘Chinese rhubarb’ was eventually introduced from Russia. The cultivation of Chinese rhubarb in Britain was encouraged by the Society for the Encouragement of Art, Manufactures and Commerce, which awarded prizes for those establishing large number of plants. However, the bottom appears to have fallen out of the British laxative market and the cultivation of Chinese rhubarb never really took off. In contrast, the French discovered that the leaf stalks of garden rhubarb were delicious to eat and forced rhubarb stems started to appear in the fruit markets of London around the start of the nineteenth century.
The trouble with this story is that it is contradicted by many bits of evidence. In Culpeper’s Herbal, written in about 1640 (some time after the supposed introduction of garden rhubarb, but before the introduction of Chinese rhubarb) both these species are described as being cultivated in Britain and as being as good as any imported. Furthermore he describes garden rhubarb, as culinary or tart rhubarb, implying that it was already being widely eaten. There are also curious records of an apothecary called Hayward from Banbury in Oxfordshire who in about 1777 appears to have cultivated and sold garden rhubarb from seeds sent from Russia in 1762. This is suspiciously close to the supposed date for the introduction of Chinese rhubarb. Hayward’s rhubarb was said to produce a drug of excellent quality, which was peddled as the genuine rhubarb by men dressed up as Turks. It appears this may have been a confidence trick to pass garden rhubarb off as Chinese rhubarb, which was also known at the time as Turkey rhubarb. Whatever the truth behind Hayward’s rhubarb we are told that upon his death his plantations were left to his descendants and that these fields of rhubarb remain in cultivation around Banbury to this day. Thus, if the good people of Banbury are more regular in their habits than the rest of us, then perhaps the old apothecary was not being economic with the truth after all.
Further confusion is added to the tale by the fact that when garden rhubarb is cultivated from seed it gives rise to plants, which vary widely from each other. This strongly suggests that it is not a true wild species at all, but of some unknown hybrid origin. In which case where did it come from? One final twist in the story is that in the French version of the saga, they are adamant that it was the English who were the first to discover that rhubarb was edible. Like much else about the rhubarb story perhaps this inconsistency is more to do with marketing than with the truth.
One of the few things that is widely know about garden rhubarb is that its leaves are poisonous. Indeed many people are so suspicious of the leaves that they even refuse to put them on their compost heaps. Although it is true that rhubarb leaves do contain toxic oxalic acid which can cause swelling of the throat and tongue the concentration is sufficiently low that it would take 5 kg of rhubarb leaves to be fatal. Thus, if you are thinking of slipping a little poison in the wife’s tea, rhubarb leaves are probably not what you are looking for.