Nothing to rue about rhubarb 

This hardy fresh fruit is a harbinger of sprin

We were walking the trails along the Fraser River the other day when we came upon a huge rhubarb plant, nestled amongst the tall grasses swishing in the breeze. With its umbrella-like leaves fanning out from the centre, it was pushing the grasses aside to make room for itself in that wild place.

There’s something very Canadian and down-to-earth about rhubarb.

As kids, we would see it growing in just about every garden. Because it took up so much space, it was usually relegated to a far corner back by the compost heap or even to a spot outside the official garden, strategically placed between the back fence and a wooden telephone pole so it wouldn’t get crushed by wayward garbage trucks or wild kids riding their bikes like crazy where they shouldn’t have been.

We didn’t know it then, but rhubarb is native to a mountainous region west of China, near the Himalayas, and the southeastern corner of Russia. As such, it seems even more typically Canadian, emblematic of all those hardy European immigrants who settled the West and were as determined as that plant we found on the shores of the Fraser.

My grandpa had several rhubarb plants and kept the entire extended family in pies. It popped up in early spring, the first fresh fruit of the season. Imagine how welcome it would have been after a long Canadian winter, before all the shipping of fresh fruits halfway around the world, in season and out, that we now take for granted.

I came from a seasoned gang of professional garden raiders and it was good to start practising early, even if rhubarb was the only thing in sight. If we were feeling particularly silly, we’d bust off the biggest branches we could find and parade around with giant rhubarb leaf parasols, fawning like women we’d seen in movies. More to the point, it was a badge of courage if you stole a stem of rhubarb and ate it raw, never-minding the astringent tartness that made your cheeks almost pucker off your face.

Better yet, sneak into a pal’s house and get a little cup of sugar to dip the stems into before munching, something my nan taught us to do. We were also told to never, never eat the leaves because they’re poisonous.

So go figure why, after World War I when there was a shortage of fresh veggies in the U.S., that a campaign was launched encouraging people to eat the leaves as a vegetable supplement. Many cases of poisoning resulted, delivering yet one more reason to always question authority. (People used to think that the toxin in rhubarb leaves was oxalic acid. But that same acid is found in the stalks and in spinach, which are definitely not poisonous. Scientists still don’t know what makes rhubarb leaves toxic. Just make sure you tell your kids not to eat them.)

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