Recipe Files: From Poison to Pie

Vintage Rhubarb 1
How did an ancient plant with poisonous leaves and roots become a delicious summertime treat in the U.S.? Blame it on Benjamin Franklin!

This month’s recipes come to us from our fellow Master Gardeners at Skagit County Extension.

Chinese or Turkish rhubarb, a.k.a Rheum officinale or R. palmatum.

Chinese or Turkish rhubarb, a.k.a Rheum officinale or R. palmatum.

Rhubarb has been used as a medicinal plant in China since at least 2700 BC and in Asia and Europe for the last five thousand years; the roots were used as a purgative or laxative for digestive system problems. The first known rhubarb in America came when Benjamin Franklin sent a box of rhubarb from London to a friend here in 1770. Because the oxalic acid in the leaves and roots make them poisonous, people eating them tended to die, thereby reducing its popularity as food. The stalks of the rhubarb plant contain less oxalic acid, although still there is enough to make them very astringent – mouth-puckering in fact! Rhubarb stalks were not used as a food until the 1800s when sugar became more readily available to counter the astringency of the taste. Rhubarb became so popular in pies that it is also known as Pie Plant.

The name rhubarb derives from the Roman name for the Volga River (Rha), and the Latin word barbarum, for foreign, since the plant came from territory across the river not controlled by Rome. The word “rhubarb” is also used to describe a fracas or fight, and was especially used in this context in baseball to describe a fight among the players. This use of the word started in the theater, where a crowd of people is instructed to murmur “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” to sound menacing and ready to riot.

Young R. rhabarbarum

Young R. rhabarbarum.

There are at least 60 species of rhubarb, most commonly used for food being Rheum rhaponticum or Rheum rhabarbarum or hybrids of these. Some of the recommended varieties are Canada Red, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, Ruby, and MacDonald. Most people prefer the varieties with the reddest coloring, although the flavor of the green varieties is the same. Rhubarb is actually a perennial vegetable, although used as a fruit: In 1943 the courts in the United States declared it a fruit in order to standardize its import duties as fruit. Its tart, astringent taste lends itself to combination with sweeteners, either sugar or sugar substitute, or another sweet fruit such as strawberries or apples. Although most commonly used in a sweet dessert, rhubarb sauces can also be used as a savory enhancement to dishes such as pork, chicken or fish. In Iceland, rhubarb soup is popular.

Rhubarb is grown by many home gardeners, and is available from many nurseries and through catalog sales. It is one of the first garden plants ready to harvest in the spring. Three to six plants produce enough rhubarb for a family of four generously. Plants continue to produce for about four or five years, then must be divided to continue production. (The best time to divide is in early spring, just as the leaves are emerging.)

Harvesting rhubarb is easy. Wait until the leaves are fully developed, then pull the stalks (which are actually petioles) away from the base of the crown, like pulling a stalk of celery off a bunch. Snap off the stalk at the bottom. Avoid cutting the stems with a knife, as this wound may allow rot to set in. In the plant’s first season, harvest only the biggest stalks, allowing the rest to nourish the root system. Never take more than half the stalks in one year, and stop harvesting by mid-summer to allow the plant to nourish itself for next year. If the plant produces seed stalks, cut them off before the flowers open. Some references say they can be eaten like broccoli, others say to discard them.

Since rhubarb is low calorie (26 calories per cup), and can be sweetened with sugar substitute or other fruits, it makes a great diet food. It has 10 mg of Vitamin C per cup, and 2 grams of dietary fiber. The calcium in rhubarb is bound up by the oxalic acid, so it is not a good source of calcium.

The easiest use is what we did as children, just dip a stalk into sugar and munch away! Cut stalks into ¼ inch pieces and add as a tangy zest to muffins, cakes and biscuits. Rhubarb sauce is easy, being just cut up pieces of rhubarb boiled with just enough water to cover, with sugar to taste (about ½ to ¾ cup per pound of rhubarb). Cinnamon, nutmeg, lime or lemon juice can be added for variety. Rhubarb can be used to make wine, jam or pie.

Hey, fellas, it's just a game!  Have some pie and calm down!

Hey, fellas, it’s just a game! Have some pie and calm down!

Here are two recipes to get you started:

Rhubarb Meringue Pie
A tasty twist on two summer classics, by Skagit County Master Gardener Micki Stauffer.

Rhubarb Pudding Cake
From Marion Owen at, a simple recipe you can tweak to suit your taste.

(And check out more of our seasonal menu options on our Recipe Page.)
R. rhabarbarum photo from Wikimedia Commons
Baseball “rhubarb” © Baltimore Sun


One thought on “Recipe Files: From Poison to Pie

  1. Pingback: Rheum rhaponticum | Find Me A Cure

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