Rhubarb Rheum rhabarbarum By Dave Hamilton

Fruit or Vegetable?

As the stems and not the fruit of the pant are eaten botanically speaking rhubarb is a vegetable and not a fruit. However the US customs in Buffalo 1947 ruled that it should be deemed as a fruit because of the way it is served. Most of us have probably had it with in pies and crumbles heavily laden with sugar to take away the tartness. In parts of Poland rhubarb is still served as a vegetable and the tartness is utilised by serving the stems with potatoes and aromatic herbs. Indeed in Iran and Afghanistan it is cooked with spinach and in the recipes below you can see my version of this.


You may find differing and seemingly contradictory information on the botanical heritage of the rhubarb. I found four different sources describing it as a part of the Knot-weed, Dock, Sorrel and even Buckwheat Family. So which is it? Well the answer is all three Rhubarb belongs to the Polygonaceae family which includes buckwheat, dock and sorrel and a number of inedible weeds including knot-weed.

Its wild origins are thought to be in Asia especially in the more cool climates of Mongolia, Siberia and the Himalaya. It is perhaps then unsurprising that it first recorded use was as a medicine in China over 2000 years ago. Rhubarb gets its name from the Medieval Latin word Œreubarbarum‚ literally meaning
Barbarian Rhubarb.

Organic Growing Advice

For many there is no need to plant rhubarb as it is among the most common food plants to inherit when acquiring a new allotment or garden.

However for all those wishing to introduce some rhubarb to their garden it can be grown either from seed or a root cutting.  I am told that seed propagation is time consuming and the results can be unpredictable.  They often mutate and the end result is slightly different than the intended variety.  However I can see how the whole process would be quite appealing, it is often quite enriching to see the entire lifecycle of a plant from seed.

I have only planted rhubarb once and chose the root cutting method.  Healthy Rhubarb plants can be bought from a garden nursery or garden centre, preferably during the winter months. A cheaper alternative is to find someone with an existing plant and get them to dig it up and cut you off a chunk. This again is best done in the winter and around a quarter of the root stock will suffice depending on the size of the plant.  Try to pick a chunk with the largest amount of buds.

It should be planted in weed free soil and, as you may expect with a plant containing acidic compounds, it prefers a slightly acidic soil.  If your soil is quite alkali rotted manure can be added in the soil or as a mulch to feed the plant and alter the soils pH.
Rhubarb doesn’t do too well in full sun so it is best not to plant it near a south facing wall or in full exposure.

When the first shoots appear it may be an idea to ‘force’ the rhubarb. This can be done by covering the plant with an upturned bucket or a specialist rhubarb forcer. Both will have similar results but the bucket will need to be weighed down with some bricks or stones on the top.  Just after mid-summer the plant can contain higher than normal amounts of oxalic acid so some choose to avoid eating the plant until levels die down again in the winter.

  • Best Planted in winter
  • Prefers Acid Soil (Ph 6) – Add rotted manure
  • Plant in shade
  • Force when first shoots appear

Rhubarb Recipes

Daves Rhubarb, Spinach and Chick Pea Curry

I first made this dish while still at university after hearing rhubarb could be cooked as a vegetable. This coincided with me completely running out of cash and only having home grown rhubarb, beet spinach and a couple of tins of chick peas to feed myself until I was paid on the Friday. Luckily I really liked the taste and still cook this today albeit a slightly more elaborate version of the original dish. It is a useful recipe for anyone growing their own fruit or vegetables as these two plants seem to require very little attention and are around for most of the year.


1 Tin of Chick Peas
1 Bunch of beet spinach
3-4 medium rhubarb stems
1 Onion
2 Cloves of Garlic
1 Chilli
Large pinch or Coriander and Cumin
Pinch of Turmeric for colour.
Butter or Olive oil to taste
Black Pepper.


In a little oil sweat off the onions and garlic then add the chopped rhubarb. De-seed the Chilli and add to the pan.
Chop and then stir in the spinach, you can add a little water at this point if you wish no more than 3-4 tablespoons though as the vegetables should be
cooked in their own juices.
Cook until the rhubarb and spinach have reduced down.
Add the Chick peas and remaining spices and cook for another 2 minutes. Serve with Brown Rice or Naan Bread

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