Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum, R. rhaponticum) can grow from seven to ten feet high with elephant ear-like leaves. The name Rhubarb is derived from the Latin rha barbarum, referring to the region of the Rha River (ancient name for the Volga River), inhabited by barbarians (considered to be anyone non- Roman). Rhubarb is a member of the Polygonaceae (Buckwheat) Family. These sturdy perennials are native to Eurasia. It is the edible stalks (petioles) that are used as food.
Seventeenth century Russian traders and trappers introduced rhubarb into Alaska to counteract scurvy. Rhubarb increases saliva production, and gastric juices, including bile. It improves peristalsis, being somewhat laxative. Rhubarb is recommended for bronchitis, constipation, neuritis obesity, and tumors. It is considered cooling and detoxifying to the liver.
Rhubarb is rich in vitamin C, calcium and potassium. In folk medicine, some people brush their teeth with fresh rhubarb juice to protect dental enamel from decay.
Due to the high oxalic acid content, which can inhibit calcium and iron absorption, rhubarb is best avoided by those suffering from arthritis, gout, kidney stones, and rheumatism. Most people should consume rhubarb in moderation, and enjoy it in the spring, when it is in season. Rhubarb leaves are toxic and should never be consumed. Do not confuse garden rhubarb with Chinese rhubarb, which is used as a potent purgative.
Rhubarb is enjoyed in jams, pies, puddings, and sauces and in homemade wines. It is very tart and the addition of apples, honey and raisins make a sweeter treat. It is generally cooked, but I recall my Canadian family would peel the stalks, dip them in a bit of salt and enjoy them raw.