A Look At The Different Rhubarb Varieties
Favorite Rhubarb Varieties - Of all of the rhubarb varieties, and there are many, the Victoria or Large Victoria variety is probably the most common variety used as a food item. It is usually a heavy producer, having either green or red stalks, is not terribly tough or stringy, and is one of the more intensely colored rhubarb plants.
Another favorite variety, and one often found in home gardens is the Valentine rhubarb, noted for it very red and very thick stalks. Some rhubarb varieties loose their color or change color when cooked, but if you want rhubarb sauce or a rhubarb pie that definitely looks like red rhubarb, Valentine rhubarb is the variety for you.
The MacDonald variety is another rhubarb that is fairly common. Also having a deep red color, this variety is often the favorite for freezing and canning, and is claimed by those who grow it to make the best rhubarb pies. In Europe a German variety, the Fraulein Sharfer Torte, has a fine reputation and is used in many culinary dishes.
Nine Foot Leaves - All in all there are probably 30 different rhubarb varieties that care grown for food. There are also numerous varies that are grown strictly as ornamental plants, plus a few plants that are called rhubarb, but are not related to rhubarb at all. One of the more interesting is Gunnera manicata, often called Giant Rhubarb. This rather magnificent plant looks for all the world like a rhubarb plant, except its leaves can be up to 9 feet across, a width that even the most energetic rhubarb variety can't even come close to. The giveaway is the prickly stems and fuzzy crown, two attributes not found in the true rhubarb plants.
There are also countless rhubarb varieties which grow in the wild, particularly in China, Tibet, and Russia, where the plant was initially cultivated, later finding its way to western Europe, England, and eventually America at about the time of the American Revolution, or shortly thereafter.
It's not totally clear where the name rhubarb comes from, though some sports fans think it originated in the early days of baseball where it meant a heated argument, usually between a manager and an umpire. The name goes back much farther than does baseball however. It is found in Middle English as rubarbe. The French version, reubarbe, is not much different, nor is the name in Medieval Latin, reubarbarum.
Not Always For Eating - No one knows when the first rhubarb pie was made or who made it. All we know is that rhubarb was cultivated mainly for medicinal purposes up until at least the beginning of the 18th century. Even when it was first introduced to America it was considered mainly to be a medicinal plant. One rhubarb species, Rheum aplinum, or European wild rhubarb, is used in cheese production. Specifically, the leaves are used for wrapping cheeses.
The “Strawberry” Rhubarb - One of the more unusual rhubarb varieties, which is used primarily as an ornamental, is a miniature species which goes by the name of Rheum kialense. This species, which features rhubarb like leaves is stoloniferous, which means it produces stolons from its base, which creep along the ground and set roots from which new plants grow, very similar to what strawberry plants do. Because of the stolons, which we sometimes refer to as runners, setting out several of these rhubarb plants will eventually result in a nice ground cover.
We select from one or two rhubarb varieties in the grocery store and from perhaps three or four varieties when purchasing seeds or plants, not realizing the large number of rhubarb varieties used for food, medicine, as ornamental plants, or growing wild, that actually are in existence.