Purges and Pies: the strange story of northern rhubarb

Purges and Pies: the strange story of northern rhubarb

👤Norma Kerby 🕔Mar 28, 2013

When the phone rang at seven on Sunday morning, I wasn’t surprised. Floyd was a retired dairyman and 7 a.m. was late in the day as far as he was concerned. “Norma, I have some plants for you,” he said.

Floyd and I both belonged to the Kitsumkalum Farmers’ Institute. These were the Institute’s dying days, just before it folded after 80 years as an integral part of the community. Floyd had an almost desperate need to pass on as much knowledge as he could about farming in the Skeena Valley. He and I shared a fascination with the old varieties of garden plants found in the Terrace area and he had decided that I would be the person to preserve some of his plant treasures.

They were not what I expected. Floyd’s eyesight was failing, and, as I followed along on his careful journey across the yard, he pointed out two plants he wanted me to save. The first was a root-cutting from a bridal veil shrub (Spiraea) that he and his wife had planted. The second was a giant rhubarb plant.

“My family brought that here in 1908 when we moved from Port Essington. Strawberry rhubarb. Best-tasting rhubarb in the whole valley.” With bright red stems and white flesh, this rhubarb was very different from the greenish-stemmed varieties that I was finding next to abandoned trapper’s cabins or in the gardens of old-time families around the region.

Floyd continued his story, explaining why this rhubarb, out of all of the heritage plants in his garden, held such importance to him. “My family lived in Port Essington at the mouth of the Skeena and brought this rhubarb up here by paddle-wheeler. My mother thought it originally came from the old Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Simpson, but my father said it was probably from the missionaries at Metlakatla.” Either way, Floyd’s rhubarb had been on a long journey to finally reach the tiny pioneer settlement of Eby’s Landing on the Skeena River.

A brief history of rhubarb

The history of northern BC rhubarb started hundreds of years ago during the Renaissance. Rhubarb did not originate as a British garden delicacy. Native to central Asia, rhubarb was recorded in the journals of European travellers as a valued commodity along the Silk Road trade route. Grown for thousands of years in China as a medicine, dried rhubarb root was prized for its curative properties. Trade first brought the medication to Europe but eventually, due to high prices, herbalists began to cultivate the plant. It readily adapted to the European climate. By the 1600s, rhubarb was grown throughout Europe as a purgative (bowel-cleaning) drug, part of every 17th century doctor’s repertoire. By the mid-18th century, rhubarb was established as a food plant in Europe.  

At this point in history, the international journey of rhubarb became intertwined with the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the 1770s, the fur-trading company was rapidly expanding into the interior of North America. Provisioning of widely separated, remote forts was an unpredictable process, requiring that each fort be as self-sufficient as possible. Most forts did not have doctors, and medical supplies were very basic. Rhubarb moved along with this westward expansion in powdered form as an essential medication with purgative (rapid cleansing of the bowels) and carminative (reduction of excessive gas) properties. Each fort’s factor, in charge of medical care, required powdered rhubarb root as a winter necessity for men who ate a fibre-less diet dominated by fish and red meat. Prolonged “indisposition” (constipation) could be deadly.

Rhubarb as a fresh plant was not used at the forts until the early 1820s. Each fort had a garden for fresh produce. Early spring rhubarb shoots became an important food at the end of winter. Where rhubarb grew well, some roots were dug up before winter and brought inside. If kept in a warm, dark place, mid-winter shoots of both rhubarb and dandelions were helpful in preventing “bleeding gums disease,” or scurvy. In an 1866 report to the London shareholders of the Hudson’s Bay Company, rhubarb was listed as an important component of the company’s gardens.

As rhubarb worked its way across North America, its arrival in northern BC followed closely behind the HBC take-over of the fur trading territory. Ft. St. James, established in 1806 by the North West Company, became part of the amalgamated Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. As administrative center for the New Caledonia District, it was most likely the first place where rhubarb was grown in that region.

Rhubarb came to the western side of northern BC via a quite different route. Fort Simpson was established by the HBC in 1832 near the mouth of the Skeena. Rhubarb, tolerant of cool weather, was an important perennial in the fort garden and became a standard food plant for the missionary community of Metlakatla established nearby three decades later. Floyd’s rhubarb could have moved from either of these communities because the founder of Port Essington, Robert Cunningham, was first a missionary in Metlakatla, then went to work at Fort Simpson. He left the Company in 1870 to capitalize on the Omineca Gold Rush. Many of the gold-seekers started their journey up the Skeena at Cunningham’s store in Port Essington. Rhubarb was well established by the time Floyd’s Norwegian grandparents moved there in 1893.

Whether it was from the east through the HBC’s string of forts, or from the west through coastal trading posts, rhubarb travelled throughout northern BC to become a staple for both First Nations and the myriad of other people arriving in the area. Large freight canoes that moved supplies up the Skeena were replace in the 1890s by powerful paddlewheelers. By 1914, northern BC was connected to the rest of Canada through the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and almost anything, including rhubarb, could be ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue. The strange journey of northern rhubarb became part of the rush to establish farms and settlements. The old varieties of rhubarb faded into the background.

Rhubarb today

Modern rhubarb? After World War II, hybridization produced rhubarb with uniform stalks and that did not go into dormancy mid-summer. Commercial growers rushed to grow the new super-rhubarb. Still, the old types of rhubarb hung on in northern BC, largely due to their tolerance to the harsh climate of the region.  

Should we worry about saving these old varieties of rhubarb? Heritage rhubarb in northern BC represents a genetic heritage that has disappeared from many other parts of the rhubarb-growing world. Given rhubarb’s medicinal properties and food values, it is important that we do not lose these plants.

As for Floyd’s Skeena strawberry rhubarb, it died last winter when the combination of warm weather followed by severe frosts killed four of my heritage fruit trees and Floyd’s special treasure. Despite a thick mulch of leaves, the vagaries of an inland north-coast climate—mid-winter thaw followed by a deep northern freeze—were too much. All of the other heritage rhubarb plants—the greenish-stemmed HBC-type plants—survived. The sweet strawberry rhubarb did not, although when I was mulching the rhubarb this fall, in the centre of the clump was one pencil-thin red stem. Whether it is Floyd’s plant resurrected or an offshoot of another rhubarb, I don’t know…but this spring I am moving that clump to a big pile of compost and manure, and who knows? After a journey of thousands of miles, and almost 200 years of history in northern BC, perhaps it is not gone yet.

If you are interested in sharing the history of your family's rhubarb plants,please contact Norma at nkerby@telus.net. The next step in unravelling the history of rhubarb in northern BC will be a study of the genetics of the old varieties of rhubarb found in this region. These heritage plants are part of Canada's historic inheritance and could have genetic information important to future medicinal uses.