The herb rhubarb is native to China as well as Tibet and has been employed therapeutically of over 2,000 years. Over the centuries, Chinese rhubarb, which is called Da Huang in China, was introduced into India from where it travelled to Europe during the age of Renaissance across land passing through Asia Minor. Traditionally, this herb has been used extensively in China, Tibet and also India. Since its use in Asia Minor has also been widespread, this herb acquired its familiar name, Turkey rhubarb. In fact, physicians in early Persia as well as Arabia had a preference for rhubarb. R. rhabarbarum, the variety of rhubarb that is cultivated for consumption as well as culinary purpose, is actually a cultivar developed during the 18th century.
The stalks of Chinese rhubarb (botanical name R. palmatum) can be found growing up to a height of six feet. These plants are crowned with huge, intensely lobed leaves that are akin to the palm of humans in form. This, in fact, has given the plant its biological name. Owing to such palmate leaves as well as the spikes of minute red blooms, Chinese rhubarb is occasionally grown in the gardens as an ornamental plant. Since it is extremely difficult to propagate this species from its seeds, most of the time Chinese rhubarb is grown by means of root division or cuttings of the plant.
Rhubarb has a long history of use as a medicinal herb and way back in 114 B.C., the dehydrated rhizomes of this herb were transported by caravans towards the east crossing the high mountains to a place called Bokhara in central Asia, from where it was taken to Europe through the Black Sea. As early as the first century A.D., ancient Greek botanist, physician and pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides as well as the Roman naturalist and author Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, documented the attributes and uses of rhubarb. Centuries later on, the Arabs were known to have traded extensively in rhubarb via Persia as well as different other regions of the Mideast.
By the 1650s, the traders had established two vital routes to import rhubarb from China - one passing through India, while the other via Moscow passing through the Gobi desert as well as Siberia. A few years later, in 1687, the Russians commanded a monopoly in rhubarb trade. However, this domination was somewhat partial since the Russians declined to accept the import of poor quality of the herb and developed repute for trading in high quality of rhubarb. In fact, the Russians' domination on the rhubarb trade continued till around 1860, at what time the Canton port was made free for direct business between China and Europe.
By the 18th century, people in Europe had already started cultivating R. rhubarbarum - the edible variety of garden rhubarb, for therapeutic use. While the rhizomes of this species were employed in the form of a traditional remedy that worked as a gentle purgative, this variety did not possess the medicinal properties or potency of Chinese rhubarb.
The therapeutic elements of Chinese rhubarb can be divided into two groups - tannins and anthraglycosides. While anthraglycosides have a laxative impact, tannins possess astringent properties, both causing conflicting consequences. Therefore, condition on the measure of the dosage as well as the manner in which the medicine is administered, the rhizome of Chinese rhubarb is useful in curing diarrhea as well as constipation. In the present times, herbalists in the United States do not employ Chinese rhubarb therapeutically any more. However, the extracts of this herb continue to be used in the form of a laxative.
It may be noted that Chinese rhubarb or Da Huang, as the herb is known in China, has a very old history of being employed as a herbal medicine. The first reference of this herb was made in the Chinese classic Materia Medica way back in the first century A.D. Very recently, in 1988, Chinese rhubarb was also listed in the British Pharmacopoeia. It was later introduced into India from where it travelled to Asia Minor and from 1732 the herb was cultivated in the West, especially Europe. It is worth mentioning here that Chinese rhubarb is among the very small number of herbs that continues to be used even to this day in traditional, in addition to herbal medicine.
Chinese rhubarb is an excellent purgative. Big measures of this herb are blended with other carminative herbs and used internally in the form of a purgative to cleanse the colon devoid of setting off too much spasm. In fact, this method is effective for curing constipation wherein the large bowel muscles are frail.
The primary action of Chinese rhubarb is having a helpful as well as harmonizing result on the entire digestive tract. In effect, rhubarb is among the herbs that are used most extensively in Chinese medicine. The results of using this herb are safe as well as mild, and even children can use it without any trouble. Chinese rhubarb also forms an active ingredient of a therapeutic formula of North America called Essiac that is a very well accepted remedy for cancer. As not controlled studies have been undertaken with Chinese rhubarb till date, the efficacy of this herb is yet to be scientifically confirmed or contradicted. Other herbs which are incorporated in the Essiac formula include Ulmus rubra, Arctium lappa and Rumex acetosella.
The root of Chinese rhubarb possesses antiseptic, antitumor, anticholesterolemic, astringent, cholagogue, aperients, diuretic, demulcent, purgative, laxative, tonic and stomachic properties. The root of this herb also encloses anthraquinones that cause a laxative result. In addition, it also contains bitters and tannins, whose actions are contradictory. When rhubarb is taken in small measures, this herb works like an astringent tonic for the digestive system, while taking this herb in larger amounts results in gentle purgative effects. Rhubarb root is also used internally to treat conditions like diarrhea, persistent constipation, problems related to the liver and gall bladder, menstrual disorders, hemorrhoids as well as eruptions on the skin owing to build up of toxic substances. However, this herb should never be recommended for women during pregnancy or people who are suffering from intestinal obstructions.
The root of Chinese rhubarb is also applied topically for treating burn injuries. When the plants have grown over six years, their roots are collected during October. Soon after harvesting, the roots are dried up and stored for use when necessary afterward. The dehydrated roots of Chinese rhubarb are also used to prepare a homeopathic remedy, which is particularly employed to treat diarrhea in children who are growing new teeth. It may be noted here that the therapeutic manual for herbal medicine called the German Commission E Monographs has approved the consumption of the species Rheum palmatum.
Other medical uses
The herb rhubarb is also used in homeopathy as a topical remedy for application on boils, burns and carbuncles. In homeopathy, rhubarb is also used in the form of a tonic as well as a gentle stimulant for appetite. In addition, it is also effective in the form of a mouthwash for treating canker sores.
Habitat and cultivation
Rhubarb has its origin in China and Tibet. In fact, the most excellent quality of this herb is still found in these places, despite the fact that currently Chinese rhubarb is being cultivated in the Western nations. Rhubarb is found growing in the wild and is also cultivated extensively. This herb is propagated from its seeds during spring or by means of root division in spring as well as autumn. A sunlit position as well as an adequately drained soil is necessary for rhubarb to flourish. When the plants have grown for about 6 to 10 years, their rhizomes are excavated during the autumn once the stem as well as the leaves of the plant have changed their color from green to yellow.
Rhubarb has a preference of deep and rich soil that is modestly heavy, possesses high amounts of humus and has the ability to retain moisture. As mentioned above, this herb also prefers total sunlight or partial shade and a well-drained soil. However, rhubarb grows best in heavy clay soils, although the plant may also be cultivated in somewhat rough grass that may be trimmed down to the ground level every year during autumn. Rhubarb plants have the aptitude to endure low temperatures as a minimum of -15°C and also have the capability to hybridize with other members belonging to this genus quite liberally. Rhubarb is an extremely ornamental plant, and, in fact, there is one named species that justifies this remark. People in China cultivate a sub-species called the R. palmatum tanguticum in the form of a remedial plant. There was a time when this sub-species was extremely well accepted in Europe and used in the form of a laxative. It is worth mentioning here that the plants belonging to this genus appear to be unaffected by damages caused by rabbits. In effect, the Chinese rhubarb accompanies well with another plant called columbine (botanical name Aquilegia spp.).
Chinese rhubarb is generally propagated by its seeds that are ideally sown in autumn in a cold frame place in a shaded location. Alternately, the seeds of rhubarb may also be sown in a cold frame during spring. When the seedlings have grown sufficiently large to be handled, they need to be pricked individually and planted in separate containers and continued to be grown in a cold frame or a greenhouse during the first winter of their existence. The young plants may be transplanted in their permanent positions outdoors during the next spring.
If you are propagating Chinese rhubarb by means of root division, it should be done during the beginning of the spring or in autumn. To propagate the plants using this method, you need to split the rootstock using a sharp knife or blade, while ensuring that each division contains a minimum of one growth bud. While the comparatively large root divisions can be straightaway planted outdoors in their permanent positions, it is advisable that the smaller root divisions are potted and grown in a cold frame in light shade till they become properly established. Once these root divisions develop new shoots that are well set, plant them outdoors either in the later part of spring or during the beginning of summer.
Practitioners of herbal medicine value Chinese rhubarb as a herbal remedy owing to the purgative, irritant and laxative attributes of anthraquinones enclosed by the herb. In fact, when therapeutic formulations of the rhubarb rhizomes are taken in large amounts, it is potently laxative. However, this herb contains elevated amounts of tannins that neutralize the emetic exploits of rhubarb. It has been shown that when taken in small measures the tannins prevail resulting in constipation.
Taking decoctions prepared from the root of rhubarb have demonstrated that they are effectual against staphylococcus aureus - a contagious bacterium that is responsible for canker sores as well as folliculitis, an infection similar to acne that occurs in the area where the beard grows.
Rhubarb is used in two forms - decoction and tincture - to treat a number of health conditions.
Decoction: To prepare the decoction from rhubarb, add half to one teaspoon of the herb's root in one cup (250 ml) of water and boil it. Allow the liquid to simmer mildly for about 10 minutes and subsequently strain the liquid. For best results, take this decoction twice - in the morning and in evening.
Tincture: The standard dosage of the tincture prepared from rhubarb is taking 1 ml to 2 ml thrice daily.
Side effects and cautions
People using rhubarb for therapeutic or culinary purposes or intend to use it, ought to be aware of the potential side effects caused by this herb and take the necessary precautions. It may be noted that the leaves of rhubarb are toxic and this is possibly owing to the high intensity of oxalic acid contained by the leaves of this herb. In fact, oxalic acid has the aptitude to put away specific minerals, particularly calcium, inside the body. However, when taken in reasonable measures, the herb is considered to be harmless. It is worth mentioning here that individuals who have a propensity to developing arthritis, rheumatism, gout, hyperacidity as well as kidney stones ought to exercise particular caution while incorporating this herb in their diet, as it may possibly worsen their condition. Using this herb for a prolonged period may result in electrolyte imbalance owing to the herbs laxative property. In addition, continuous use of rhubarb has the potential to augment the secretion of aldosterone, passage of blood and albumin in urine as well as loss of movement in the intestines.
Collection and harvesting
This root is collected in China and Turkey.
In case one experiences any type of griping, he or she should use rhubarb in combination with herbs that possess carminative properties, as this will ease their condition.