New Hampshire Glossary: Rhubarb

Not native to the United States, rhubarb can be found on the list of goods imported from Europe in the middle 1700s, for sale in New Hampshire.

The ship manifests do not state whether these were rhubarb plants, but I suspect it was dried rhubarb, as the powder of these plants were used medicinally at that time.  Published notices dating back to the same time (mid 1700s) in New Hampshire indicate that rhubarb was used in mixtures believed to cure or relieve dysentery, “prevailing fevers,” indigestion, headaches, the common cold, and later even cholera and other more serious maladies. It was later nicknamed the “pie plant” when it was eventually used as a food-stuff.

On 24 June 1817 the New-Hampshire Patriot reported on Fatal Blunders, i.e. “two persons have lately been poisoned by apothecaries in giving wrong medicine: [including] a young lady of New castle, E. took laudanum instead of tincture of rhubarb…”

The New-Hampshire Patriot newspaper (published in Concord NH) dated 8 May 1810 states “Rhubarb now grows in many of our gardens, and stands our winters in safety,” however rhubarb continued to be listed on ship’s manifests in Portsmouth NH as being an import after that date, up to the late 1820s.  By about 1828,the book, “New American Gardner” was being advertised with information about commonly grown plants, which included rhubarb.

18 May 1830, the New-Hampshire Gazette newspaper of Portsmouth wrote the following about Rhubarb: “delicious vegetable is scarcely known to housekeepers, and even to professed gardeners, it is a “rare plant…a few days ago a friend favored…the desert supplied with rhubarb tarts–a feast which, we will venture to say has fallen to the lot of a few this spring…Rhubarb occupies the place of the gooseberry, and for tarts is not inferior to that fruit. This also is enhanced in value by its early coming into use–in this climate, it can always be had, by open ground culture by the 20th April…is of very easy culture; for, after obtaining a supply of the plants, they will continue for years to afford an abundant supply without replanting or any other trouble than seasonable dressing of the beds, and the space of ground occupied by them is very small–a dozen plants of rhubarb…will afford sufficient for a family. Market gardeners would undoubtedly find it greatly to their interest to cultivate them, and we hope ere long to see a regular supply on their stalls.–American Farmer.”

On 1 June 1833, the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, published as the Portsmouth Journal and Rockingham Gazette included an article, “Rhubarb Pie.–The Rhubarb root, which makes such rich and delicious pies, will grow doubly well by placing an empty barrel over it. A friend of ours had two plants by the side of each other. To test the fact, he placed a barrel over one, and left the other uncovered. At the expiration of a fortnight, the covered one had extended itself beyond the top of the barrel, while the other by its side had grown, perceptibly, but very little. One plant served in this manner, will supply the largest family with materials for delicious Rhubarb pies.–Northamton Courier.”

Rhubarb although sometimes thought of as a fruit, is actually a vegetable. Today, it is considered a specialty perennial plant. In 2002 the United States reports show that only 1809 acres total grow this plant, and cheaper imports are causing pressure on farmers to grow even less.


Rhubarb Production (1972 booklet) – Internet Archive

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