Photo by Asahel Curtis, National Geographic Stock
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A 1921 photo of Alaska's Rhubarb King, Henry Clark, holding up a gigantic specimen.
Photo by Asahel Curtis, National Geographic Stock
The Plate

Four Things You Didn’t Know About Rhubarb

As a kid growing up in New England, I never really believed spring would come until I saw the tiny, alien-looking green and red rhubarb shoots poking through the frozen ground in our neighbor’s yard. It was early March. Once the frost broke, they began their Goliath growth spurt, culminating in giant ruby stalks, cut neatly of their leaves and left on our doorstep every year. And then there was pie.

But if all you know of rhubarb is its ability to tart up some strawberries under a pastry crust, read on, and dream of spring with me.

The roots were used in ancient Chinese medicine. Long before it became a weird and wacky culinary marvel, rhubarb’s roots were believed to aid in digestion. The roots were cultivated as far back as 2,700 B.C. for their bowel-emptying properties, and of course this led folks to believe rhubarb cured various stomach ailments. While the science is still out on that one, the belief persisted, appeared in various tales of miracle cures for emperors and kings, and spread throughout Europe.

The leaves are pretty but poisonous. In large doses, eating the elephant-ear shaped leaves could close your throat. The leaves contain high levels of oxalyic acid; which is used in ink, stain remover and metal polish. Don’t mess with that. Cut them off when harvesting and focus on the gorgeous stalk.

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Rebecca Hale, NGM Staff

Rhubarb is really a vegetable. As we’ve reported, many fruits and vegetables have swapped categories for political reasons, but rhubarb has remained largely under the radar. If you’ve ever tasted it outside of pie, you know that describing rhubarb as astringent is an understatement. That’s why it’s most often cooked down with a ton of sugar and treated like a fruit. A rhubarb compote can be used to make jam or be served as an unexpected accompaniment to roasted meats. And, there’s always that quintessential pie, or this tart, with an almond paste and tangerine twist.

It’s big – really big – in Alaska. Rhubarb is a cold-weather plant, and it will grow back every year for a decade or so, when treated properly. While rhubarb is grown over much of the northern U.S. from Maine to Oregon, it has a special place in the hearts of Alaskans. That’s because the few long days of summer sun there help rhubarb grow to five feet or more. In the early 20th century, Henry Clark of Skagway, Alaska, was known as the Rhubarb King. His crop provided vitamins, fiber, and flavor to Klondike gold rush hopefuls who had few other options for fresh produce. And Clark’s rhubarb descendants still grow on the site of his old farm, reported National Geographic’s Margaret G. Zackowitz.