The mystery vegetable

Published on June 4, 2014
Brittney Spears, left, and Emily Taylor with Cricket the horse were out for a walk to the rhubarb patch. Cathy Wilkinson photo


If you’re like me and many others, rhubarb was part of growing up.

Do you remember eating raw rhubarb and dipping it in a bowl of sugar or just eating it as some would say, “straight up.”

Do you remember playing the game to see who could stand the sour taste the longest.

Rhubarb has an interesting history. Chinese used rhubarb more than 5,000 years ago for medical purposes. They dried the rhubarb and used it as a laxative. Ben Franklin is said to be credited for bringing rhubarb seeds to North America’s east coast in 1772. He had taken them from the barbarian land of Rome. But only in the 1800s was when rhubarb caught on to become a popular ingredient in pies, that’s why it has the nickname, pie plant.

Rhubarb is a strange-looking vegetable often mistaken for fruit. It is a relative of the buckwheat family and ranges from a dark green colour to bright red. It has a stringy celery-like texture and the redder it is, the sweeter it is, and the greener the more sour.

It’s also 95 per cent water and only has seven calories per 100 grams. Rhubarb contains lots of vitamins and has a high source of vitamin K, calcium and potassium that is good for the muscles, bones and nervous system. It also contains plenty of fibre and vitamin C, which is known for lowering blood cholesterol levels and as a cure for the diarrhea. Those who develop kidney stones with oxalate content should avoid rhubarb because the kidneys don’t break down the calcium in the rhubarb. It is also very low in sodium so it's a good option for those who suffer from heart disease.

Also a daily intake of rhubarb can keep the blood pressure under control. You can even use rhubarb to clean your burnt pots and pans. Just use a good application of rhubarb sauce and pour it over the burnt area. Let it stand for few minutes and rub it in and it will bring back the shine – and in an environmentally friendly way too.

Rhubarb can be grown in most climates and needs good soil drainage for growth. When transplanting, you need to dig the hole for the roots twice as deep as other vegetables. It takes two years for transplants to grow before harvesting. The best time to transplant is in the late fall or early spring.

When you go to harvest your rhubarb, pull the largest stem with your thumb inside the stem as far down as you can get and gently twist and pull. Always cut the tops off the rhubarb right away as they are poisonous and toxic, containing a high level of oxalic acid. 

Oxalic acid is an organic corrosive poison found in a lot of plants but it’s very concentrated and high in the rhubarb plant leaves. That’s why you should never harvest rhubarb after June 24 because it’s highest levels of toxin from the leaves goes into the plants near the end of the growing season. The leaves from the rhubarb were used in the First World War to poison certain people. They were boiled up and fed to army troops as a vegetable. These toxins can cause renal and cardiovascular failure. The leaves can also be used to make an effective organic insecticide for any leaf eating bugs such as cabbage caterpillars, slugs and aphids. All you need is:

– Boil a few pounds of leaves in a few pints of water for about 15 to 20 minutes

– Allow to cool

– Strain liquid into container

– Dissolve a little powered soap, shake up and use

– Remember to keep away from children because it is harmful if swallowed.

Never cook rhubarb in aluminum pots because of the toxins in the rhubarb. Always use ceramic or stainless steel pots. I hope you get out there and find some rhubarb and enjoy the summer taste.