I recently joined an online message board for my neighborhood in Iowa City. It has open invitations to meet for coffee as well as anxious pleas for information leading to the return of a favorite cat, along with adorable photos. One post that has been getting a lot of attention is by a woman outraged that somebody had stolen her rhubarb.
This announcement has apparently struck a nerve, with comments like, “Why can’t people just ask?” and “Who would do that? Low life!” As well as more modulated remarks decrying the general state of moral decay in America.
It’s not as if there is any great shortage of rhubarb. It seems that lots of Iowa yards come with their own ancient patch of rhubarb. I’m sure ours has been there for generations. It requires no maintenance. Sometimes we pick it for pie or muffins. Sometimes we just mow it over. And then, every spring it springs out of the lawn, vigorous and plump, like all is forgiven and ready for another round.
Over the years, property lines can change and occasionally a batch of rhubarb that was once inside somebody’s fence now grows along the edge of an alley, creating ambiguity of ownership. I recently heard about an incident in Mount Vernon in which a certain individual (who shall not be named) snipped a patch of rhubarb off to the ground that was growing outside the fence line, setting off a minor scandal in the neighborhood. Was it actually theft? Or merely inconsiderate? Would it have been proper protocol to ask permission? Or is alley rhubarb reckoned wild and free to all?
There is a hilarious and disturbing YouTube video from 2013 (with over a half million views!) of a cantankerous and foul-mouthed old lady, hunkered down in an alley, harvesting a patch of rhubarb as the neighbor accuses her over the fence of stealing, claiming it’s hers.
Rhubarb Lady: No, it’s not!
Neighbor: Yes, it is!
Rhubarb Lady: It’s alley property!
Neighbor: No, it’s not.
Rhubarb Lady: Your fence is there, b- — — -! Go mind your own business!
Neighbor: Oh, no. Uh-uh.
Rhubarb Lady: Don’t try to claim everything in this alley. It’s not yours!
Neighbor: Okay, if it’s anybody’s property, why don’t you come up here and mow it?
Rhubarb Lady: Because my lawnmower was stolen, b — — — -!
And so on. As trivial as it seems these days, rhubarb ownership was once serious business. For over a thousand years, rhubarb leaves were considered essential medicine as a laxative throughout China. It was many times more expensive than saffron or even opium. In the 1600s Russia sought to create a monopoly on the stuff, threatening anybody with death who tried to smuggle it out of the country. In 1906, in North Shields, England, a miner by the name of Thomas Strong was arrested for stealing a lady’s rhubarb. A neighbor caught him in the act, tackled him and turned him over to the authorities, who promptly fined him five shillings plus the fair market value of the rhubarb.
To his credit, Mr. Strong made a full confession and acknowledged the gravity of his crime. “Well, I will have to take the weight of it,” he said.