James Ford Bell Library

Rhubarb

 Jean Baptiste Loyson & Augustin Pillon, 1694, p. 50.Illustration of rhubarb, from Pierre Pomet, Histoire generale des drogues. Paris: Jean Baptiste Loyson & Augustin Pillon, 1694, p. 50.

Rhubarb is native to central Asia, and awareness of its medicinal qualities as a physic goes back five thousand years in China, and it was in common use among Arabs, Greeks and Romans in ancient times. It was no surprise to Marco Polo to find it on his travel to China in 1271. He observed in the mountains of Sukchu “the most excellent kind of rhubarb is produced in large quantities, and the merchants who buy it convey it to all parts of the world.”

It was the root of the plant which was bought and sold for its medicinal qualities. When Columbus wrote to the Spanish monarchs upon his return from his first voyage, he congratulated himself on the fine products he had found — among them rhubarb. But he was wrong. Still his expectations are understandable, since he thought he was near Asia, and rhubarb was among the drugs and spices he sought.

The East Indian trade brought rhubarb to Europe by sea while the overland trade in it continued. A graduate student in this class traced the importance of rhubarb in the records of the Swedish trade, and it was very expensive. European pharmacists encouraged attempts to grow it locally as had been done with other new products such as potatoes and tobacco. Roots and seeds of the rhubarb plant were brought to Western Europe in the seventeenth century, and in France it was discovered that the stalks were edible and could produce a tasty sauce. British cooks did not take to it until later, but British scientists continued to try to produce a product as good as the Russians were selling. So when Benjamin Franklin sent a case of rhubarb root from London to his friend John Bartram in 1770, rhubarb was introduced into North America as a medicine, not as a food product.

But the British persisted in their experiments with rhubarb, and in the process produced varieties with acceptable taste and cooking qualities, and by the mid-nineteenth century rhubarb farms of many acres were common. In 1829 rhubarb appeared in American seed catalogues, and it has been a popular garden product ever since, becoming a primary ingredient in jams, sauces, preserves, and especially pies, being called “pie plant” by many housewives. It is especially successful in the northern states as a garden product, requiring minimal care, and it is the earliest edible garden item in the spring.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at ragn0001@umn.edu.

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