Rhubarb Roots

June 9, 2020


Rhubarb pie (no strawberries!) baked  by the author for Memorial Day weekend 2020

I love pie. I don’t always love making it, but I love eating it. So what better way to celebrate June 9th than to acknowledge the rhubarb plant and national Strawberry Rhubarb pie day?

Rhubarb is an amazing plant. It’s hardy, high in vitamin C, and is touted as a blood pressure reducer.

For centuries it has been recognized for its medicinal purposes and was, during the time of Marco Polo, more expensive than saffron. Historically, its origins can be traced to China. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“The Chinese call rhubarb “the great yellow” and have used rhubarb root for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. It appears in The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic which is thought to have been compiled about 1,800 years ago Though Dioscurides’ description of ρηον or ρά indicates that a medicinal root brought to Greece from beyond the Bosphorus may have been rhubarb, commerce in the drug did not become securely established until Islamic times. During Islamic times, it was imported along the Silk Road, reaching Europe in the 14th century through the ports of Aleppo and Smyrna, where it became known as “Turkish rhubarb”. Later, it also started arriving via the new maritime routes, or overland through Russia. The “Russian rhubarb” was the most valued, probably because of the rhubarb-specific quality control system maintained by the Russian Empire. (snip)

The high price as well as the increasing demand from apothecaries stimulated efforts to cultivate the different species of rhubarb on European soil. Certain species came to be grown in England to produce the roots. The local availability of the plants grown for medicinal purposes, together with the increasing abundance and decreasing price of sugar in the 18th century, galvanized its culinary adoption. Grieve claims a date of 1820 in England. Rhubarb was grown in Scotland from at least 1786, having been introduced to the Botanical Garden in Edinburgh by the traveller Bruce of Kinnaird.

Though it is often asserted that rhubarb first came to the United States in the 1820s, John Bartram was growing medicinal and culinary rhubarbs in Philadelphia from the 1730s, planting seeds sent him by Peter Collinson. From the first, the familiar garden rhubarb was not the only Rheum in American gardens: Thomas Jefferson planted R. undulatum at Monticello in 1809 and 1811, observing that it was “Esculent rhubarb, the leaves excellent as Spinach.”


The rhubarb plant at our home in Kirkland, 2017

Fifteen years ago I enrolled in a class at Bellevue Community College which was touted as one that would explore the various types of articles one could write for publication in magazines. This was, for the most part, before blogs and individual web pages took root.

Each week we were given an assignment to write an article of a specific type such as “How To” or “Humor.” I recall clearly the day I shared my version of a “personal essay” – near the end of the course – and the reaction. When I finished reading my piece aloud, the room was silent; even the instructor did not say anything for several beats. When she did speak she said, “I think this is your strength.”

The development of this blog was the natural result of decades of extrapolating small slices of life and looking for the story gems hidden within. What follows is the article I wrote back in 2004…

Rhubarb Roots

The story of that rhubarb plant didn’t stop with its transplant to Kirkland, however. Root balls have been gifted to family and friends whenever requested. In fact when my friend Mary – who grew up in Kansas – heard the story of the rhubarb and its connection to her home state, she asked for a piece of it which we gladly shared. Every so often she will post a picture of the VERY healthy plant on social media or send me a message providing updates as to what delectable delight she has created. (Being that she is one of the best cooks I know, no doubt the end result is fabulous!) Our niece Carolyn – who we gave a hunk of it to back in 2016 and another great cook – also recently posted that she had cooked a pie with the rhubarb stalks along with thanks for our sharing of the plant.

When the hubby and I moved yet again in 2018 there was never any doubt that the rhubarb was coming too. But there was a catch. We were moving to a condo/townhouse and there was no spot for a proper garden. Instead, all the rhubarb moved north to the hubby’s family century old farmhouse and acreage in Blaine to be planted there as a means of keeping it for us and future generations.

Rhubarb in the pot

The rhubarb we transplanted to a pot next to our front walk. It is scheduled for a change of scenery to allow it to grow unfettered by the constraints of its environment.

We did manage to plant one root ball in a pot alongside our front walk at the new place. We soon discovered that our next door neighbor, Bob, is a plant guy. I mean a real plant guy in that he has spent his career working with plants and the development of new vegetable varietals. Following his lead of finding space for fruits and vegetables in some of the common spaces, a second section of our rhubarb was recently repatriated and is now taking root at the edge of the back fence. Of course Bob, would like his own rhubarb also, a request which will soon be obliged.

And so it goes… another leg in the journey for my rhubarb roots. I’m pretty sure I have just enough to make another pie.

A couple of links for your edification:



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