The Chinese were using rhubarb as a medicinal plant for thousands of years before its introduction to Europe. It was found to be valuable because of its laxative properties. The rhubarb root was also considered to have anti-cancer properties. This article will be discussing the properties of the rhubarb stems, and not the root, which is not used in the west and little has been published about its safety.
Rhubarb was imported into Europe along the silk road, beginning in the 7th or 8th century; Later it started arriving via maritime routes or overland through Russia. It was expensive in medieval Europe, more so than cinnamon, opium and saffron, Nevertheless it was poplar because of its laxative and purgative properties. Apothecaries in medieval times preferred the plants that came from Russia – Siberian rhubarb.
In the United States, medicinal and culinary rhubarb was grown in the early 1700s. Jefferson planted it at Monticello, and is quoted as saying that the leaves are excellent as spinach. In this he was greatly mistaken – rhubarb leaves are extremely toxic, high in oxalic acid, and should never be eaten or given to animals. Put them in your compost. I hope Jefferson did not encourage his slaves to eat them.People who have had urinary stones containing oxalic acid, calcium oxalate stones, should drink lots of water and avoid too much food high in oxalate, such as rhubarb, beets, okra, spinach, Swiss chard, nuts, tea,and chocolate.
On the positive side, rhubarb is high in vitamin K, which supports healthy bone growth and brain functioning. It contains lutein, beneficial for the eyes, calcium, and many other vitamins and minerals.
Researchers are interested in substances in rhubarb that kill human leukemia cells and slow the growth of lung cancer cells in mouse models.
Rhubarb is sour – cooks need to add sweetening to make it palatable for most people. You can cook it with raisins and cinnamon, and add a bit of sugar or honey at the end to taste. There are some good recipes on the web for rhubarb chutney. If any readers have a good rhubarb recipe low in sugar, please leave me a message on this blog, and I will publish it next week.
Sadja Greenwood MD, MPH