Rhubarb, with its tart, celery-like edible stalks or petioles topped by large triangular-shaped leaves, is the prolific and long-lived perennial that graces our vegetable gardens and landscapes. In many U.S. regions, rhubarb's emergence is a familiar and welcome harbinger of spring.
Like fresh cranberries, raw rhubarb is astringent, extremely tart and inedible. To make rhubarb palatable, you must cook it, adding sugar or other sweeteners to balance the acidity and tartness.
Regardless of the variety, only the rhubarb stalks are edible. Never eat raw or cooked rhubarb leaves. The leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and are poisonous. Eating just a small amount of leaves will make you sick. Eating a large amount may be fatal.
Fruit or Vegetable?
Botanically, rhubarb is definitely a vegetable. In the United States, however, it has a mixed identity.
Rhubarb was considered a vegetable until, in 1947, a New York court reclassified it as a fruit because that was the way Americans cooked and ate it. The fruit designation also meant that rhubarb was subject to lower tariffs and duties, a plus for importers and exporters.
Whether you call it a fruit or a vegetable, rhubarb continues to be an American favorite in pies, compotes, preserves, baked goods and sauces.
A Brief History of Rhubarb
- Not all rhubarb is red. Look for stalks in hues ranging from crimson to speckled pink-green to light green.
- Rhubarb is often called the "pie plant" - a tribute to one of its most popular uses.
- In baseball, rhubarb is slang for a heated altercation, often between players and umpires.
- Rhubarb is a fat-free, cholesterol-free and low-sodium food. It's a good source of dietary fiber, Vitamin C and Vitamin K.
- One cup of raw rhubarb contains approximately 30 calories.
Rhubarb (genus Rheum
), is a relative of sorrel and belongs to the Polygonaceae
or buckwheat family. Originating in Western China, Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia and surrounding regions, modern rhubarb still grows best in cooler climates. The "rhu" in rhubarb comes from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga River region where rhubarb has grown for centuries.
For thousands of years, the Chinese have used dried rhubarb rhizomes and roots as medical purgatives. During the 1400s along the Silk Road, traders brought rhubarb to Europe where it was highly prized for its medicinal properties. Rhubarb was introduced to the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States in the late 1700s, most likely by the British.
How to Select Rhubarb
The freshest and best rhubarb comes straight from your garden. If that isn’t an option, look for rhubarb in your grocery store or farmer's market.
When buying fresh rhubarb:
- Select stalks that are flat, crisp, firm and plump. They should feel heavy and have shiny, unblemished skin. Attached leaves, if any, should look fresh and unwilted.
- If you have the choice, choose pulled over cut stalks. Cut stalks dry out faster.
- Never buy stalks that are dry, limp, fibrous, blemished or rubbery.
In many regions of the United States, hothouse-grown
rhubarb is available most of the year. Field-grown
varieties, however, with their more concentrated tartness and deeper color, usually debut in March. Although field-grown rhubarb is available throughout the summer, its peak season is definitely spring, when the stalks are extra juicy and tender.
Rhubarb varies in color, from crimson to speckled pink-green to light green. While varieties differ in tartness levels and fibrousness, skin color does not dictate flavor nor does stalk thickness indicate tenderness. Many cooks favor red rhubarb, especially for eye-catching dishes like pies and jams.