Rhubarb—a vegetable masquerading as fruit

Ruby, Honeyred, Grandad’s Favourite
Victoria, Livingstone, Hogan’s Shillelagh
Irish Giant …

Crimson Winter, Scarlet Defiance
Dawe’s Challenge, Moore’s Red-Right-Thru
Reed’s Early Superb …

Hawke’s Champagne, German Wine,
Harbinger, Timperley, Tobolsk,
Kershaw’s Paragon …

I love the vernacular poetry of common names. Of thistles, plums—or in this case—rhubarb. Those stanzas are all varieties and cultivars of rhubarb.

Plant names have more influence with gardeners than is generally supposed; thus in the case of rhubarb, Champagne and Early Scarlet find more favour than the Sutton (a very good sort), although this is certainly a name which should inspire confidence.’
Daily News (Perth, WA), July 1911

AWA (Amalgamated Wireless Australasia) garden fete, 1944. Photo from the State Library of NSW

Does size matter? It certainly seems to at fetes and agricultural shows. And I’ve read a number of articles about the giant rhubarb of Alaska. The plant was likely brought there by Russian traders in the 1700s. And once there it grew big. Long days of summer sunlight apparently produce monster plants. Leaves the size of small satellite dishes and stalks as thick as a man’s arm.

Stalks posing as fruit. The Cinderella of the kitchen garden. A cut-and-come-again character. A vegetable struggling to find its place in a fruit world. The basis of a comfort food classic.

Botanically speaking rhubarb is a vegetable. Culturally speaking it’s fruit, and in 1947 a US Customs court in Buffalo NY ruled that it was indeed a fruit. And so it has remained.

The history and botany of rhubarb are complicated, but fall into two broad categories. More or less. Medicinal rhubarb and culinary rhubarb. The medicinal kind was well known in Europe by the seventeenth century, but its culinary sibling didn’t appear in cookbooks until the latter part of the eighteenth.

Rhubarb made its journey west via a circuitous route from northern Asia to the banks of the Volga, and then from Russia to Europe—and from Britain to North America, New Zealand and Australia. It’s a well-travelled plant. For a detailed account of rhubarb’s peregrinations Clifford Foust’s Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug, is the go-to book.

Rhubarb arrived in Australia in the early-mid 1800s. The rhubarb we use here, whether cultivated in back yards or bought from shops and farmers’ markets, is grown outside. Recipes from England though, often refer to forced rhubarb. The forcing process, which originated in West Yorkshire, involves bringing two-year-old plants into dark sheds where the only light they’ll see will come from the flicker of candles at harvest time. Under these blackout conditions, the plants grow pinker, sweeter stalks instead of the leaves required for photosynthesis. Rhubarb produced this way is less fibrous and has a more delicate flavour than its field-raised counterparts. Does anyone force rhubarb in Australia?

Rhubarb goes in and out of fashion. Although unpopular in the decades following World War II, in the twenty-first century rhubarb has enjoyed a renaissance and is now firmly back on the menu.

Come the cooler weather, rhubarb comes into its own—in pies, muffins, poached with your breakfast porridge and in crumbles. Heaps of recipes for rhubarb crumble on the internet, and it’s a very forgiving dish. Not one to impress Instagram or Masterchef judges, but one to be enjoyed at home on a winter evening with the accompaniment of your choice: custard, cream, yoghourt, crème anglaise, ice-cream—or my personal favourite, evaporated milk.

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