Does liking rhubarb make you a barbarian? The unusual history of spring’s favorite plant

You think it’s just a simple little stalk you’re pulling out of the ground? Think again.

Rhubarb could be spring's perfect fruit. It's virtually indestructible, and its tart taste pairs well with sweets and is extremely versatile. So why is it the food of barbarians and the star of stage, screen and baseball diamond? iStock / Special to The Forum
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You think it’s just a simple little stalk you’re pulling out of the ground? Think again.

Rhubarb, which is right in the middle of its peak season, has a surprisingly interesting history. And because June 9 is also National Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Day, the timing seems right to get to the bottom of rhubarb’s tart and checkered past.

As you pull up, chop and bake all that rhubarb you're harvesting from your yard, take a moment to pay respect to spring's most multi-talented fruit.

So what’s the deal about barbarians?

Perhaps rhubarb earned its barbaric reputation because of its dangerous leaves — which can make you sick or even kill you if eaten. But it turns out that's not the case. The name “rhubarb” comes from the Latin word “rhabarbarum,” which means “root of the barbarians.” The Romans labeled anyone who ate rhubarb “barbarians.”

One must believe that the Romans never had a good piece of strawberry rhubarb pie. If they had, rhubarb might have been named for the Latin "Radix de summa deliciis," meaning “root of total deliciousness.”


June 9 is "Strawberry Rhubarb Day." Ancient Romans might not celebrate however as they considered rhubarb barbaric. Photo: iStock

Do we even know what it is?

Is rhubarb a fruit or vegetable? Both. It is technically considered a vegetable, but in 1947, a New York court ruled it a fruit because it is most often eaten in desserts. Were they so lacking in important things to talk about following the end of WWII that rhubarb had its day in court? Probably not.

The court case had more to do with saving money. Businesses that imported rhubarb paid less tax if rhubarb was considered a fruit and not a vegetable. I’m not sure why. If anyone is an expert in 1940s-era New York fruit and vegetable tax law, please let me know.

How is rhubarb a movie star?

Have you ever heard of the old trick used by choir students everywhere? When you can’t remember the lyrics to a song you’re singing, just mouth the word “watermelon” over and over. The movement of your lips replicates other words and the audience won’t be able to tell what you’re singing. The same could be said for extras in 1930s film and theater.

Rhubarb 2
1930s stage actors getting ready in their dressing rooms. If they were part of a background scene, they might have mouthed the word "rhubarb" to simulate a real conversation. Public domain photograph

Apparently, someone back in the '30s came up with a wonderful solution to make it look like actors in a background scene were having a real conversation. They were told to just say the word “rhubarb” over and over again. You don’t suppose the actors in the barbecue scene at the O'Hara plantation in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” did this, do you?


“I do declare: rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.”

- What the background actors in 1939's "Gone with the Wind," might actually have been saying.

How did rhubarb make it to the big league?

Certainly baseball players probably enjoy a good rhubarb crisp like the rest of us, but in their world, “rhubarb” has a darker side. According to Sports Illustrated, in 1938 a Brooklyn Dodgers fan shot and killed a New York Giants fan in a bar fight because of a recent game between the two teams. When a baseball writer named Tom Meany asked the bartender to describe what happened, he called the fight a “rhubarb.''

No one quite knew why, but it caught on, particularly in New York baseball circles. Dodgers radio broadcaster Red Barber liked the word so much he began to use it when he did play-by-play for Brooklyn.

Radio broadcaster Red Barber popularized the term "rhubarb" as a scuffle on the baseball field. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

He had a huge following, so the use of the word “rhubarb” to describe a fight between players grew in popularity. In 1951, the word even became the movie title for a screwball comedy about a pet cat named Rhubarb who had been willed ownership of a baseball team.


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Rhubarb has been called the perfect fruit for the lazy gardener since it's so easy to maintain and almost impossible to destroy. But what is your favorite way to eat it? iStock / Special to The Forum

article7056055.ece Rhubarb poll Hey all of you Barbarians - What is your favorite way to eat rhubarb? In some kind of a 'crisp' or pie (with ice cream, of course). Make mine a muffin, bread or cake, please. As a syrup, pudding, jam or even as part of a savory dish

Other stories by Tracy Briggs:

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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