This article “Rhubarb” was written by our very own Mary Ann Petersen, Eugene native and Licensed Acupuncturist at Absolute Wellness Center. It was originally published in 2014 by Alternative Medicine magazine.
Rhubarb: The many sides of one of the world’s more unique vegetables
Rhubarb has a story to tell. Both species. Did you know that rhubarb is also one of the very few vegetables — not fruit — that is perennial? It regenerates for several years.
There are two rhubarbs: Rheum Rhaponticum (western), and Rheum Palmatum (Chinese).
Chinese rhubarb, or “Da Huang,” hit the scene, in print, around 200 A.D., in the “Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica,” an early text on herbal medicine. It is the larger of the two plants, with a firmer texture than its western relative. Chinese herbalists used it often, particularly for constipation. In lower doses, it also treats diarrhea. The root is yellowish with white streaks and much larger than the smaller, spongier, pink-colored western variety. Chinese rhubarb also has the stronger taste and effect between the two. It is a “purging” herb, acting as a powerful laxative.
The western strain of rhubarb is credited to an Oxfordshire pharmacist, who developed it around the 1760s in England. The first batches appeared in produce stands in 1810, but it didn’t sell well, as few understood what it was. Word eventually spread in the following century, and by 1910, it was popular and sometimes called “pieplant.”
Both varieties of rhubarb are used as a laxative. The astringent qualities are said to improve bowel tone after it has purged the intestines, which makes it a good choice for improving heath and function of the bowel digestive tract.
The chemical component of rhubarb supports the folk medicine function.
Rhubarb contains glycosides, especially rhein, glucorhein, and emodin, which impart cathartic and laxative properties. A glycoside is a molecule in which a sugar is bound to another functional group via a glycosidic bond.
In traditional Chinese medicine, herbs are described by nature, temperature and direction, among other terms. The herbal properties of Chinese rhubarb are described like this:
- nature: bitter and cold.
- direction: downward.
- function: purge clumped heat in the intestines; cool blood; remove blood stasis. Drain toxic heat from the body.
- acupuncture meridians entered: heart, large intestine, liver, and stomach.
It is used in several herbal formulas to address:
- chronic constipation
- painful urinary dysfunction
- intestinal abscesses
- high fever
- sore throat (including mouth sores)
- hot, swollen and red eyes
Externally, Chinese rhubarb is used for burns, wounds and traumatic injuries.
Chinese herbal medicine typically combines several herbs together to make a formula. The herbs are selected to work together to treat a specific condition. This plant, found in many classic herbal combinations, is still in use today.
Too much can be toxic
If used incorrectly, as in high doses, rhubarb can cause a toxic reaction. Symptoms may include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and dizziness. One would also not want to use this herbal medicine long-term, as in several months or years. It is meant to correct a patient’s condition and then be discontinued.
You should not eat the leaves of this plant. They contain high levels of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is used in household cleaners and as a bleaching agent. Rhubarb leaves are known to have caused at least one death in the U.S. in 1910. However, at the same time, some who ate the leaves were unaffected. Stay on the safe side and avoid the leaves.
When using herbs, it’s best to consult an herbalist. It is similar to consulting a pharmacist about prescribed medications. Most substances have a helpful side and a dangerous side, particularly when used without knowledge or guidance.
What if I just want to make a pie?
That’s a perfectly fine way to go with the western variety. It can be used in combination with most fruits used in jams, sauces and cobblers. It takes on the flavor of whatever fruit it is mixed with.
The plant grows best in full sun, although it can tolerate some shade. Place it in loose, well-drained soil outside your regular vegetable garden as it can take up a lot of space. It will grow in the same place for many years.
Mary Ann Petersen, LAc practices at Absolute Wellness Center in Eugene, OR as part of a multi-disciplinary practice offering sports medicine, chiropractic medicine, naturopathic medicine, physical rehabilitation, acupuncture, and massage. To learn more, give us a call at 541-484-5777.