Q & A with Jill Shepherd on the history of rhubarb in Alaska
I attended a talk Jill gave in early October on rhubarb and was amazed to hear about the research she has been doing on the history of gardening in Alaska and how rhubarb, which seems to be a very Alaskan plant, first arrived here.
Q: What got you started on this research?
A: It was a retirement project that I started in 2007. I wanted to learn about early gardening in Alaska, starting with Russian colonization in the 18th century, highlighting the fledgling Agricultural Experiment Station and its role in distributing plants and seeds to settlers, and ending my search with Alaska's Victory Gardens (there were more than 1,300) during World War II. That was almost three years ago and I'm stuck in the Russian era.
Q: How do you believe rhubarb arrived in Alaska?
A: Gregorii Shelikhov, who established Russia's first permanent settlement at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in August 1784, wrote in "A Voyage to America, 1783-1786," that he planted rhubarb and it did well. Rhubarb also was included in his list of provisions, although I haven't been able to find out if he took seeds or if he took live plants. Twenty years earlier, in 1762, plants were raised successfully in Great Britain from seeds sent from Russia, so it's possible that Shelikhov had viable rhubarb seeds. It's reasonable to assume that live plants stored in the damp hold of his ship would have molded and died on the year-long trip from East Siberia to Kodiak.
Q: Rhubarb wasn’t originally known as a food plant – how was it used?
A: Beginning with the Greeks, dried rhubarb root has been used medicinally - primarily as a laxative - for about 4,500 years. Russia had an early state monopoly of the rhubarb trade it had with China, and by 1638 had a Department of Rhubarb. Imported from Chinese Mongolia and Tibet and resold to European markets, dried rhubarb proved so valuable that in 1765 some of the proceeds of Crown Rhubarb sales were used in the building of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St.. Petersburg. Today medicinal rhubarb is sold as da huang and is available in local health food stores in both powdered and tincture form. Rhubarb didn't become popular as a food item until sugar became cheaper and more available. By 1778 it was a food plant in Europe, appeared in America in 1790-1800 and was sold as produce in Massachusetts in 1822.
Q: I believe varieties are being found that are purely ornamental as well?
A: Last summer I bought Rheum palmatum var. Tanguticum from a local nursery and have photographed other ornamental varieties in gardens throughout Southcentral. I don't have any other information.
Q: Do you have any idea how many different species of rhubarb are grown in Alaska now?
A: Amanda Brannon, a local rhubarb cookbook author, told me in a phone conversation a couple of years ago that she knew of 30 varieties being grown in the Mat-Su Valley.
Q: Can the public visit the Experiment Farm in Palmer to view the different varieties grown there?
A: The rhubarb collection is part of the Arctic and Sub-arctic Plant Genetic Resources Unit. They have more than 300 rhubarb plants encompassing 64 varieties growing there from all over the United States and Europe this year. It is maintained by the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. This is a research project to try to save our food plants for posterity. The public can't roam through the fields, so someone would have to escort visitors.
Q: Is there anywhere else in the world that is growing a collection of rhubarb?
A: I think it might be the only one in the United States. The collection was moved to Palmer a few years ago from Michigan State University, because our climate is ideal for rhubarb. Rhubarb is still a huge deal in Great Britain, where annual rhubarb festivals draw thousands of visitors.
Q: What other plants have you found were early introductions pre Gold Rush?
A: Other plants on my list of hardy plants possibly introduced by early Russians are: potato, tiger lily, yellow iris, Russian black currant, gooseberry, Russian chive, Russian daisy, raspberry and strawberry. Local people swear the plants date from the Russian era.
Q: What is the next step in your research? Where will it take you?
A: I would like to collect rhubarb plants, if I can find them, in the village of Old Harbor (near Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island) and other villages where Russians may have planted rhubarb and other plants on my list. I'd like to have some tissue cultures done to see if I could pinpoint the plants' origins. I'm especially interested in the Ayakulik rhubarb from Kodiak that was given to me and which I donated to the Palmer collection. It came from a very old patch near a fish weir on the Ayakulik River, not too far from Olga Bay on Kodiak.
Q: Do you know if there is any historical evidence that Native Alaskans were cultivating gardens as we know them?
A: The only crop I've heard of was in Southeast Alaska, where researchers found evidence that suggests the Tlingits had garden sites where they grew tobacco before the Russians arrived.
Q: Any question I haven’t asked that you’d like to answer?
A: Most of the rhubarb crop in the United States comes from Washington State, although rhubarb cultivation is picking up in Alaska. That's another story.