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Page 60 ( 2 pages)
Americans call rhubarb “pie plant” for good reason. After it has been chopped, boiled and sweetened, rhubarb is most often used as a filling for pie, typically in concert with strawberries. But there is much more to rhubarb than pie. In fact, this old-fashioned plant has a rich history.
Though technically a vegetable – surprisingly, rhubarb belongs to the same family as buckwheat –a New York court ruling from 1947 classified rhubarb as a fruit, because it is most often treated as one. Rhubarb's definition is further complicated by the fact that its genus, Rheum, includes two especially important but vastly different species.
Rheum rhabarbarum is the botanical name of the species we use in the kitchen. According to John Lindley's Treasury of Botany, published in London in 1866, “the technical name of the genus... is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga, on whose banks the plants grow: but according to others it comes from the Greek rheo ‘to flow,' in allusion to the purgative properties of the root.”
That brings us to the second valuable species, Rheum palmatum, which for centuries was prized for its medicinal properties. In the days before modern medicine, purgatives were much sought after as treatment for all sorts of conditions. Traditional Chinese medicine considers the dried roots of rhubarb good for the digestion; used judiciously, they have a beneficial laxative effect. Catherine the Great's physicians took advantage of this property, treating her with rhubarb after she fell ill from consuming too many oysters.
Medicinal rhubarb was once such a valuable commodity that it rivaled spices and even opium on the open market (in the mid-seventeenth century it cost three times as much as opium). Because Russia lay between China –the source of the finest rhubarb – and the European market clamoring for the root, Russia was at the forefront of the rhubarb trade. The government periodically imposed a monopoly on this trade, considered at times as valuable as the trade in furs. In 1657 Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich issued an ukase forbidding Russians to engage in the importation or selling of rhubarb within Russia, with any infraction punishable by death. However, foreign merchants were still allowed to trade through the port of Astrakhan.
Peter the Great was eager to cultivate medicinal rhubarb in Russia, in order to compete more actively against Turkey, China's rival supplier of the root. In 1789 Catherine the Great finally legalized hothouse production, causing the demand for imported rhubarb to rapidly decline. By the early nineteenth century, the East India Company was providing Britain with so much rhubarb from Turkey that Russia could no longer count on significant revenue from the dried roots it supplied from China.
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