Rhubarb belongs to the plant family Polygonaceae and is a very old plant. Contrary to popular belief, it is classed as a vegetable, not a fruit, being a close relative of garden Sorrel although in the western world it is still more usually used in desserts.
Rhubarb is the plant name for the many different species (about 70) of Rheum. It originated in Asia, in particular China and Tibet, with the earliest records relating to its use dating back to 2700BC when it was mainly cultivated for medicinal purposes, in particular for its purgative qualities. Whilst it’s believed that by the 1500s it was being used in Europe for its medicinal properties, one of the first records found of its culinary use in Europe dates back to 1608. However, it was not officially recorded as a culinary plant in Europe until the mid/late 1700s.
Our Timperley Rhubarb has often been the envy of the village and several friends and neighbours now have clumps split from ours growing their gardens. We always have the best intentions of turning it into something wonderful but don’t tend to eat desserts so never get round to using it and we give it away or it ends up stewed and stashed in the freezer. The plan this year is to make rhubarb vodka and bottle it for Christmas. Last weekend I thought I’d make a start but when I went to pull it, every stem had small black splits from top to bottom and strange clear crystals had exuded from them. I thought this had to be insect damage, but could see no evidence of anything living in the stems. Internet research proved to be inconclusive but gathering snippets of information from various sources we came to our own conclusion.
The leaves of the Rhubarb have long been known contain the poison Oxalic acid. Several deaths were documented during the First World War when, due to hardship people took to eating the leaves as a vegetable.
It seems that during periods of fluctuation in climatic conditions ie from very hot and dry to hideously wet, the Oxalic acid migrates from the leaves into the stems.The acid is exuded from the stem through small lesions where it then re-crystallises rendering the whole plant poisonous.
As you can see from the picture of Frank Sidebottom above, in a just a week it has rallied and hopefully I will be on with the vodka project very soon ….recipe to follow.