Rhubarb is an ancient Chinese medicinal plant, closely related to the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, with which it shares the same string-like attributes. To this day, the only true rhubarb, the kind which contains special life-enhancing active ingredients, is the Chinese variety, which can only to be found growing in Ama Surga and Dsun-molun, in the mountainous regions of the Kansu province.
There are many look alikes of the rhubarb, most of them are not to be used as food. The Chinese were the first to use the plant, only from the 17th century on the stalks are used as food in Europe.
The introduction of rhubarb into Europe is often attributed to Marco Polo, who described its pharmaceutical properties at length in his accounts of travels in China, but rhubarb was already widely used in European pharmacy as a result of eastern Arabic influence.
A planting of rhubarb was recorded in Italy in 1608, but it was more than 150 years before rhubarb was used as a filling for tarts and pies and the great gastronomic staple rhubarb crumble was invented by Hayward, of Banbury in Oxfordshire, who commenced cultivation of rhubarb with plants raised from seeds sent from Russia in 1762. Hayward also produced a drug of excellent quality, which used to be sold as the genuine rhubarb, by men dressed as Turks. When Hayward died, he left his rhubarb plantations to the ancestor of the present cultivators of the rhubarb fields at Banbury.
Today rhubarb is grown not only in Oxfordshire in the UK, but also in Bedfordshire and in some warehouses. Rhubarb has also been grown ornamentally, being quite hardy and readily propagated.
Recent attempts by textile manufacturers to exploit the fibrous qualities of this plant have so far been unsuccessful, and rhubarb matting is considered inferior to that made with other fibres, such as sisal and manila, a banana-like plant grown in the Philippines.