Rhubarb…is it a fruit…is it a vegetable? That is a tricky question to answer. Here’s the thing with rhubarb. Botanically speaking, it is a vegetable and member of the buckwheat family, but because it is most often cooked down with sugar for pies and jam, it is thought of as a fruit and is even nicknamed the pieplant. In 1947, a Buffalo, New York State Court classified rhubarb as a fruit for tax purposes. This resulted in a smaller duty payment on imported rhubarb. So, science says it’s a vegetable, but money says it’s a fruit.
At the end of the day, rhubarb is tasty and lends itself to both sweet and savory dishes. Only the bright red stalks, which resemble celery, are edible. The leaves contain a high concentration of oxalic acid, an organic poison and corrosive found in many plants that is extremely toxic. The roots, even though they’re not useful for making delicious meals, can be used medicinally.
When talking about rhubarb, it is important to know that it is cultivated in two different ways, which affects the color. The mystery of why some rhubarbs are dark red and some are pink depends on whether they were “field grown” or “hot-house grown”. Field-grown rhubarb typically has dark red stalks and green leaves. Hot-house grown rhubarb produces pink or light red stalks with yellow leaves. Also, there are more than 100 species of rhubarb, most of them hybrids that have various colors, flavors, harvest times, yields and medicinal values.
Rhubarb in history
Rhubarb has been used for trade and medicinal purposes in Chinese culture dating back to 2700 B.C. Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty reportedly used rhubarb to cure his fever. Five thousand years ago, the Chinese would also dry the roots for use as a laxative. However, it was the Greeks and Romans that first recorded the roots’ medicinal uses in writing.
Funny enough, there was no written documentation of culinary rhubarb until around the 1800s. Maine became the first U.S. state in recorded history to grow rhubarb sometime between 1790 to 1800. In 1815, the Chelsea Physic Garden was the first to “force” rhubarb into producing rapidly elongated leaves and stalks by keeping them in the dark. This also suppressed chlorophyll, in turn making the stalks sweeter.
Everyone seemed to like wine and desserts in the 1900s, and that really kick-started rhubarb to popularity. Then WWII happened, and the deprivation of war caused a sugar shortage. Sugar is rhubarb’s best bud, and it took a hit soon after.
What to look for when buying rhubarb
Rhubarb is a tricky vegetable to buy. First, steer clear of rhubarb with fat, green stalks. They are less sweet and tender than those with thin, red stalks. If the rhubarb is field grown, the stalks should be a deep red color. However, if the rhubarb is hot-house grown, the stalks should be full of pink to light red. No matter which kind you’re shopping for, the richer the color, the better.
It’s rare to see the leaves still on the rhubarb. If the leaves are still intact, they should look vibrant. However, do not buy rhubarb based on the leaves alone since they are poisonous and inedible. I’m just saying if they’re still on the stalk, the leaves should look fresh. Please never eat rhubarb leaves; Just use them as a clue for freshness when shopping, and discard them immediately.
If the edges of the rhubarb look dried out, shriveled or old, it has most likely been in storage too long and not the freshest. Also, if the rhubarb edges look bruised or feel soft to the touch, then it’s no good. In this case, just keep it moving since that indicates the rhubarb is past its prime. The stalks should be free of bruises, firm and stand straight without limping over.
I like to bundle rhubarb snugly in foil and crimp the ends ever so slightly. This allows the ethylene gas to expel while keeping the ends looking fresh longer. Why not a plastic bag or plastic wrap? The plastic traps the ripening ethylene gas, causing the rhubarb to go soft faster. The foil bundle method is better, keeping the rhubarb fresh for nearly two weeks.