Summer is in full swing in Anchorage, and that means we’re right in the middle of the Days of Rhubarb. To say that the Alaskan climate agrees with rhubarb is an understatement. Many Anchorage gardeners have plants that are not just successful, but wildly productive! And nothing can illustrate the superabundance of local rhubarb like our recent rhubarb exchange!
When we sent out the word that Wild Scoops would be trading ice cream coupons for stalks of freshly trimmed rhubarb, our friends with gardens heard the message loud and clear. Within one week, we had received over 700 pounds of fresh, beautiful and ready-to-use rhubarb!
Given the reign of rhubarb here in Alaska, it’s almost impossible to imagine that there was ever a time when the plant was scarce. Yet in Medieval Europe, rhubarb was in such high demand that it was as costly as cinnamon, saffron, and even opium! That’s because rhubarb is native to Asia, and it was not successfully grown elsewhere until the late 1600s. Prior to that, rhubarb reached Europe through the Silk Road or maritime trade routes. It was mostly cultivated in China, where it was regarded not as a food plant but rather as medicinal. Ancient Chinese doctors prescribed rhubarb to patients complaining of digestive ailments. By the 1400s, many Europeans had been introduced to the health benefits of rhubarb, but their attempts to propagate Chinese rhubarb for themselves failed. Instead, they had to rely on expensive imported rhubarb.
Somewhere in the next couple hundred years, European botanists realized that a close relative of Chinese rhubarb was being cultivated in Russia. Efforts to introduce these plants to Western gardens were far more successful than the attempts to grow Chinese rhubarb. Today, over 60 species of rhubarb are grown, and the vast majority are descendants of Russian rhubarb. They have proved to be a lot tastier than the rhubarb that originated in Central Asia! Though most gardeners today don’t think of rhubarb as a plant with medicinal properties, it is healthful: rhubarb stalks are a source of dietary fiber, and they also offer vitamins A and C as well as the nutrients thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, potassium, and phosphorus. Just don’t be tempted to eat those leaves, because they hold poisonous oxalic acid.
Next time you harvest some of those crimson stalks that run rampant in your backyard, think about the incredible journey your rhubarb has been on over time. What was once an expensive medicine grown only in a few countries has become a favorite food of people around the world. Today, rhubarb is beloved by people in Northern regions where less cold-hardy plants fail. From Russia to Scandinavia to England to Canada to Alaska, rhubarb is one of the best examples of an organism that not only tolerates the cold but prospers in it.