Not to be confused with the delicious common garden rhubarb that brightens up many a pie here in America, medicinal rhubarb, or Rheum palmatum, has a much more specific and potent effect on the body. Although parts of it can be eaten, best to be aware of its actions and contraindications beforehand (see “Warnings” at the bottom of this post), lest you be unpleasantly surprised by… ahem… unwanted bowel stimulation.
Polygonaceae – buckwheat family
Medicinal rhubarb, Chinese rhubarb, Turkey rhubarb, Indian rhubarb, da-huang (meaning “great yellow” in reference to the color of its rhizome)
Root and rhizome
A cold and bitter stomachic, medicinal rhubarb is at once astringent and laxative, a digestive and appetite stimulant, cathartic, antibacterial, and aperients. Specifically regarding its laxative effect, Hoffman describes it as having, “purgative actions for use in the treatment of constipation, but [it] also has an astringent effect following this. It therefore has a truly cleansing action upon the gut, removing debris and then astringing with antiseptic properties as well,” (Hoffman 134). Much of its actions in regards to digestion have to do with the dosage used. “In small doses, the astringent tannins in the root make it effective for diarrhea and also tonic to the digestive system,” (Mabey 98), whereas, “in larger amounts, the anthraquinones react with bacteria in the digestive tract to create compounds that trigger intestinal contractions for a bowel movement. (The high fiber contact of medicinal rhubarb helps somewhat, too.),” (Duke II, 186).
Constipation, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, hepatitis, high blood pressure, edema, nausea, anorexia
Anthraquinones, tannins, bitter aromatic principle
Rheum palmatum’s native habitat is the wastelands of western China, northern Tibet, Turkey, and Mongolia. It can easily be distinguished from the common edible garden rhubarb by its sheer size. Although garden rhubarb is known to be a large plant, its size pales in comparison to that of medicinal rhubarb, which, “has thick, deep roots, a six- to ten-foot jointed stalk, and loose panicles of flowers along the top that bloom yellow or white and turn red. Around it fall tapering branches that hold out large, jagged, hand-shaped leaves two to three feet wide,” (Foster III, 104).
The roots of plants three-plus years old are collected in areas of China and Turkey in September and October. They are then cleaned and dried. Foster points out, “Traditionally in China, the root is wild harvested, but wild supplies have been depleted. In the past 30 years it has been extensively cultivated in China,” (Foster III, 105).
Most commonly taken as a decoction, tincture, or syrup, David Hoffman suggests that medicinal rhubarb, “should be combined with carminative herbs to relieve any griping that may occur,” (Hoffman 134). Juliette de Bairacli Levy also recommends its being eaten if you have access to the fresh plant, saying, “Eat a few of the raw young stems frequently as a bowel tonic and mild laxative. Take as much as desire of the lightly cooked stems and hearts, flavored with lemon juice, sweetened with honey or sugar,” (Levy 132).
With a 5,000-year-old legacy of medicinal use in Chinese medicine, even written about by Marco Polo in his travels in the 13th century, “In 1731, the imperial Russian state began a monopoly in rhubarb trade from China via the Asian steppes to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the root was shipped to the rest of Europe. The ‘Rhubarb Office’ controlled European imports of rhubarb for more than 125 years until Chinese ports opened to the West allowing direct export of the roots,” (Foster III, 104). Surprisingly, it was relatively unknown in the West until the 18th century, despite its having been used in medicines in Europe for hundreds of years previous, and its trade was one of great import (pun intended) – in China,“Rhubarb export was so common by the mid-19th century that when the emperor of China could not stop the import of British opium, he threatened to stop exporting rhubarb to Britain,” (Foster III, 105). That’s a powerful plant.
Do not use while pregnant or nursing or if you have any of the following conditions: arthritis, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, intestinal obstruction, or urinary problems. Only use root and rhizome, as the leaves are poisonous. As with any laxative, do not take for more than several days to this end. Also note: Usage may result in yellow or red colored urine.