By Grace Geller, Farm Liaison
Human growth is not like rhubarb. It can be nurtured and encouraged but it cannot be forced. — Andy Hargreaves
There is something beautiful about a truly reliable seasonal spring plant. The sight of which fills the body with a knowing that winter is in the rearview mirror and spring has truly arrived. Rhubarb is a wonderful example. The perennial plant can return each spring with a harvest for five years or more. Bright red stalks sprout from the ground with a determination that is hard to kill. Seriously. Once rhubarb has made its home, it is quite tricky to discourage this plant from returning. Rhubarb plants have been known to survive fires, winters in Alaska and being run over by lawn mowers… multiple times. There is something symbolic about the hardiness of this plant, just like the human condition, rhubarb is resilient through the winter months. It works hard to make its place in the world and personally, I am so glad it does!
While it may look like celery’s more festive cousin, rhubarb actually resides in a family of flowering plants known as the Polygonaceae family, along with buckwheat and sorrel. I know what you may be thinking: does that mean rhubarb is a vegetable? And actually the answer is not so clear cut. Technically, in a botanical sense, yes, rhubarb is a vegetable. However, a New York court found in 1947 that legally, within the United States, rhubarb is classified as a fruit. So, there is your daily dose of produce law history!
Be careful to not eat the leaves of the rhubarb plant as they contain high levels of oxalic acid which is toxic to humans. In its unaltered form, the petiole (edible stalk) of the vegetable/fruit is extremely tart and has a somewhat stringy texture. This is why you often find it cooked or baked. The tart flavor is made more palatable with the addition of sugars. It is also commonly found paired with spring’s sweetheart, the strawberry. When baked together, these two have a symbiotic relationship, the rhubarb cutting the sweetness of strawberries and the strawberry smoothing out the tartness from the rhubarb, resulting in a unique depth. True flavor synergy.
Before it was known for its culinary balancing act with strawberries, rhubarb was an extremely popular medicinal tool. There is record of rhubarb, or the Chinese term for it, dà huáng (“the great yellow”), being referenced in The Divine Farmer's Herb-Root Classic, a foremost text in Chinese agriculture and medicinal plants, which was compiled over 1800 years ago. The plant was considered valuable enough to go through the laborious process of transporting across Asia to Europe. It is said that one of Marco Polo’s key inquiries during his explorations to Asia was to find the growing and harvesting patterns of rhubarb to bring back to Europe.
The high demand for rhubarb eventually led to the agricultural innovation of rhubarb forcing in the early 1800’s. The technique involves exposing a dormant rhubarb plant to extreme cold and then bringing it to an ideal growing temperature. The plant is then covered with a lidded terracotta pot to block out all light. In these conditions, the rhubarb plant grows faster than it would usually as it searches for sunlight to make chlorophyll, thus producing an earlier harvest. Without light, the rhubarb does not create its large leaves and the glucose reserved for that part of the plant is re-routed to the stalk, making a noticeably sweeter fruit! The process is so light sensitive that farmers are known to tend to this indoor gardening process by candlelight as their only light source!
Thankfully, you do not have to travel to mountainous areas of China or design your own candle lit darkroom to enjoy rhubarb. We are currently serving a Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp with Almond Gelato at Gjelina (try out our recipe for Strawberry-Rhubarb Polenta Crisp on Gjournals here) and a Strawberry Rhubarb Galette at Gjusta. Come try it for yourself, perhaps on June 9th, which happens to be National Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Day!