Words of Summer: Rhubarb -The Toast

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It’s rhubarb season. I just had a fantastic margarita made with rhubarb tea, which is best consumed on a rooftop terrace, which is where I happened to be.

You may be wondering about such an odd-sounding name. If you thought that that initial RH marked a Greek origin, you would be right, but the etymology is more curious than you might expect. When Carl Linnaeus went about giving scientific names to plants, he chose the Latin Rheum for the rhubarb genus, from the Greek rhon (plural: rha). This term in Latin referred to a type of rhubarb root used medicinally, also known as rhapontic, with “pontic” referring to the area around the Black Sea. Rha in fact was an ancient Scythian word for the Volga River, which flows not into the Black Sea but rather in the Caspian Sea. The convergence of words for this root attests to the fact that this variety of plant originated in Asia Minor.

But the pontic (or Volgic) sort of rha was not very highly regarded. It just wasn’t as good as some of the other varieties of rhubarb being grown further east, in China and Tibet. When this superior version of the tangy plant made its way to the Roman Empire, delighted consumers called it after its foreign origins: rha barbarum, the root that also gives us the word “barbarian,” which linguists think originated as a way of making fun of foreigners for speech that sounded to Roman ears like a garbled “bar bar bar.” The shift to “rhubarb” in English seems to have occurred around 1578, as evidenced by statement in Henry Lyte’s Niewe Herball, or Historie of plantes “There be diuers sortes of Rha, or as it is nowe called Rheubarbe.”

By the time Linneaus got around to codifying the term rheum for rhubarb in 1753, the European version plant was already long widespread in England, primarily used for medicinal purposes. The Scottish philologist and physician Christopher Irvine, in his Medicina Magnetica (subtitled: “The rare and wonderful art of curing by sympathy: laid open in aphorismes; proved in conclusions; and digested into an easy method drawn from both wrote”) wrote “Thou mayst also in all diseases of the liver, and the meseraicks use with good successe, an extract of Rhubarb,” referring to problems that might arise with the mesenteric veins, which supply blood to the intestines. But if rhubarb was good as medicine for the digestive tract, it was even better as food: the culinary uses of rhubarb soon followed. The 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica noted that “The Rhaponticum, or common rhubarb… grows in Thrace and Scythia, but has been long in English gardens… The plant being astringent, its young stalks in spring, being cut and peeled, are used for tarts.”

Rhubarb, which is one of the first plants to be harvested in the spring, has been the subject of a variety of local traditions. A 9-square mile area in West Yorkshire is now known as the “Rhubarb Triangle,” after the successful rhubarb cultivation in the first four decades of the twentieth century, which at one point covered 30 miles. The particular variety of rhubarb grown there, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb, (referring to the practice of “forcing” the plant to grow in winter or early spring by subjecting it to frost and then moving it into a heated space) is typical of this area. Farmers successfully applied to have the name protected under the European Commission’s Protected Food Name program, adding Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb to an exclusive club of locally produced foods that includes champagne, asiago, gorgonzola, camembert cheeses, and Vidalia onions. On June 7-8, Aledo, Illinois, hosted its 22nd annual Rhubarb Festival, offering consumables ranging from rhubarb pie to Rhubarb wine, and took a great deal of pride when Governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn named Aledo the “Rhubarb Capital of Illinois.”

There are quite a few other rhubarb festivals around, most in the United States, which a rhubarb enthusiast has conveniently mapped for you. Enjoy!

Liora Halperin is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder. In her spare time, she enjoys investigating etymologies and word histories.

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