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Rad Rhubarb

July 11, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

Rarely have people changed their minds about a plant as radically as they have about rhubarb. Having been appreciated for thousands of years in China, it was a prized item in international trade from the late Middle Ages right up until this century. It was considered absolutely essential . . . for medicine.

In those days, people wanted only the root. Dried rhubarb root, pleasantly aromatic and proverbially bitter, is a laxative. It was a favorite with doctors in the days when they believed in treating diseases with tonics and "heroic purgatives."

Rhubarb was so costly that for some decades before the 1860s, when merchants started importing it directly from China to cut out its traditional Russian middlemen, shrewd English farmers sometimes planted it in their gardens. Even shrewder ones eventually discovered that the tart stalks--not the laxative root, and certainly not the somewhat poisonous leaves--were delicious when stewed with sugar and handy for making pie in spring when many fruits aren't available yet.

That discovery was surprisingly recent. In "Curiosities of Civilization," written in 1860, Andrew Wynter observed that farmers have been selling it on the London market only since about 1820. "It was first introduced by Mr. Miatt forty years ago," he wrote, "who sent his two sons to the Borough Market with five bunches, of which they only sold three."

It caught on pretty fast in England, though, and in Holland, Scandinavia and northern Germany. But its biggest success has been in this country, where many people know it as pie plant--or even wine plant, because fruit wine has so often been made from it.

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