Joel Fry, Curator at Bartram’s Garden, answers the question….
Yes, and no, as with any story. There are 3 or more species of rhubarb, and Bartram grew them all, and received 2 species from Peter Collinson in the 1730s and one from Franklin later in 1770. Bartram is the first documented to grow rhubarb in North America.
There is quite a bit of confusion over the several species of rhubarb and the names used in the past. Rhubarb was a very important and valuable medicine in the 18th c. (a gentle laxative). It came primarily from China, and the importation to Europe and America was a great expense. Europeans tried over the course of many years to get seeds or live plants of the true medicinal rhubarb, but usually wound up with something else. John Bartram is the first documented to grow one or more kinds of the common garden rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum.
Here’s a short history about what we know of rhubarb at Bartram’s Garden:
Early in the Bartram-Collinson correspondence, probably prior to 1737, Peter Collinson sent John Bartram seeds of a rhubarb. This was probably what Collinson called “Rhapontick rhubarb,” (probably the common garden rhubarb, Rheum rhabarbarum). In the summer of 1737, Collinson sent seeds of “Siberian Rhubarbe” a second species or variety of rhubarb which he thought was the true medicinal plant from Russia, (this was more likely just another variety of garden or culinary rhubarb, but maybe not). Bartram grew these 2 types for a number of years, in the summer of 1741 he mentions both kinds in his garden. [Apparently one of the central research efforts of the St. Petersburg apothecary's garden and botanic garden was the cultivation of medicinal rhubarb. They sent several expeditions to Siberia to obtain wild plants. There were two competing plant collections in St. Petersburg under two different government bureaucracies--the science academy had the botanic garden and the medical bureau the apothecary's garden. A German, Amman, controlled the botanic garden, and a Swede, Siegesbeck, controlled the medical garden.]
On September 22, 1739, Collinson wrote Bartram that both the Siberian and Rhapontick rhubarb “make excellent tarts before most other Fruits fitt for that purpose are ripe…” and proceeded to give a recipe for rhubarb tart. This is the earliest known reference to rhubarb pie in America. [For the full text of Collinson’s 1739 recipe for rhubarb tart, see the Berkeley and Berkeley edition, The Correspondence of John Bartram, p. 125.]
There is a Joseph Breintnall leaf print of rhubarb, dated November 23, 1738 in the collections at the Library Company of Philadelphia. This print was made in Philadelphia, probably from a plant grown either by Bartram or Breintnall, again documenting the rhubarb Collinson sent prior to 1737. [This is one of the most important plants documented in the Breintnall collection.]
To further complicate the story; in January 1770 Benjamin Franklin forwarded seeds of another rhubarb to Bartram from London, along with an engraved illustration. Franklin called this the “true rhubarb”, which originally came from near the Chinese Wall. This was more likely another one of the mid-Eastern/Asian medicinal rhubarbs, Rheum palmatum. And Bartram had success in growing it as well. [The Franklin letter, January 11, 1770 is in the Berkeley and Berkeley, Correspondence, p. 727.]
The Franklin rhubarb introduction in 1770 is often incorrectly mentioned in books as the earliest rhubarb in America. It could be the earliest “medicinal rhubarb”, but clearly John Bartram was growing the edible, garden rhubarb more than 40 years before this.
Rhubarb became a popular “fruit” for pies and desserts, as it was available from the garden long before most most other fruits ripened. So rhubarb tarts could be made when just about the only other options were mealy stored apples or dried fruit like raisins or apples. In Penna. raisin pie became the go to pie for funerals as every kitchen always had raisins around, and funerals could take place any time without warning. Even today, raisin pie is called “funeral pie” in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. My grandmother and aunts all called it that.
We now grow 2 species of rhubarb at Bartram’s Garden–an ancestor of the common garden rhubarb Rheum rhabarbarum, and palmate rhubarb Rheum palmatum.
For more about Bartram’s: