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Modern use - The oral or rectal administration of rhubarb is useful in reducing Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN) in patients with chronic renal failure and may prevent or delay progression to end stage uraemic syndrome.
Lindleyin, one of the tannic fractions, has about the same anti-inflammatory effect as aspirin or phenylbutazone, and suppresses early stage inflammation. It also has a peripheral analgesic action comparable to these drugs.
Historic uses – Rhubarb root is one of the oldest and best-known Chinese herbal medicines, first appearing in the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing) of the latter Han dynasty.
In the Ershiwu Shi (the collected official histories of the imperial dynasties), the following uses are recounted.
• Rhubarb is given to the Wu emperor of the Liang dynasty (557AD-579AD) to cure his fever, after warning him it is a powerful drug to be used in moderation.
• Rhubarb was transported to the throne as tributes from the southern parts of China during the Tang dynasty (618-907)
• During the Song dynasty (960-1127), rhubarb was taken in times of plague.
• During the Yuan dynasty, a Christian sentenced to hard labour was pardoned after using rhubarb to treat some soldiers.
• The Guangzong emperor (1620-1621) of the Qing dynasty was miraculously cured from what is euphemistically called a difficult illness after having a “joyful time” with four beautiful women sent to him by a high official
• In 1759, the Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) started a ban on trade to Russia and the West of Rhubarb.
• When in 1839, Lin Zexu told the west that unless they stopped trading in opium, there would be no more tea or rhubarb, and this would be a catastrophe for them. The West replied with the Opium Wars.
Marco Polo mentions it extensively, as a result of Arabic influence, rhubarb was much used in the great medical schools of Salerno and Bologna.
The first recorded European planting of rhubarb is in Italy in 1608. The earliest food use in tarts and pies is in 1778.
In 1777, Mr. Hayward, an apothecary of Banbury in Oxfordshire commenced the cultivation of rhubarb with seeds sent from Russia. This he sold using men dressed up as Turks to convince the populace of its quality. His rhubarb plantations in Banbury are still a major source of the plant.
Its first appearance in America is the planting by an unnamed Maine gardener of rootstock from Europe between 1790 and 1800. He introduced it to growers in Massachusetts, and it was being sold in markets by 1822.
Botanical uses – Rhubarb has its own festivals- there are Rhubarb Festivals in Banbury (as might be expected), Nova Scotia, Queensland, Ontario, Wakefield (Yorks.), Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine and Colorado.
At one time, rhubarb was used for cleaning pots and pans, due to its oxalic acid content.
It has been used as a hair dye to make fair or brown hair a more golden colour.
It is used by organic gardeners to make a spray to kill caterpillars, aphids and other leaf eaters.
Craft paper makers use the fibres to make a rhubarb paper.