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.”
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