One cup of essiac mix contains only about 1/2 teaspoon of rhubarb but there is controversy about which variety should be used, Turkey rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) or Indian rhubarb (Rheum officianale). Below are interesting arguments collected back in 1999-2000, including a definitive letter from an Ontario University Professor of PhD Native Studies Program.

Some advocates of Turkey rhubarb (Rheum palmatum):

  1. Caitlin Grieve Rice of Ontario, Canada:

    I live in Ontario and I am very friendly with Mary McPherson, who knew Rene Caisse very well. According to Mary, when Rene Caisse could no longer get out and about, she would have Mary purchase the rhubarb herb for her. Rene instructed her to purchase Turkey rhubarb for the making of the formula. Rene apparently did use Indian rhubarb at one point, but later changed to Turkey rhubarb, claiming that it was less bitter and more palatable.

  2. Chris Corpening R.N. (Tehachapi Tea Company, CA), “A Nurse’s Herbal Tea”:

    I called Frontier again this morning and spoke with one of their herbalists. I asked for a reference and she steered me to a book I have and find very credible: “The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses” by Deni Bown (1995). The following are direct quotes:

    “The two main medicinal species of rhubarb are R.palmatum, introduced into Europe in 1762, and R.officinale, introduced in 1867. The cultivation of R.palmatum was given high priority in the 18th century. A map of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (originally a physic garden), dated 1777, indicates a very large area devoted to its cultivation. R.palmatum is one of the most widely used Chinese herbs. It was first mentioned in the Shen Nong Canon of Herbs, which dates back to the Han dynasty (206BC-AD23). Rhubarbs contain anthraquinone glycosides, which act as strong laxatives.

    “Several species are used medicinally, including R.officinale, R.australe (Himalayan rhubarb, Indian rhubarb), and the hybrid R.palmatum x R.coreanum, (Japanese rhubarb). Many other names exist, such as “Turkey rhubarb,” and “Dutch rhubarb,” which usually refer to the commercial source of the drug, rather than the country of origin.

    “These rhubarbs vary slightly in chemistry but are used interchangeably.”

    Side note: in Brown’s book, she references R.palmatum as “Chinese Rhubarb”.

    There is always a question of possible irradiation once crossing the border; however, according to Michael Castleman, author of “The Healing Herbs” (1991), “The medicinal species are not garden herbs” and Deni Bown relates, “The familiar edible rhubarb was derived from R.rhabarbarum (syn. R.rhaponticum), developed through hybridization during the 19th century. The roots of edible rhubarbs are not used for medicinal purposes”.

    Unless I am missing something in the expansive library I have accumulated, I have found that not one source says that R.palmatum is of poorer quality to R.officinale. I am limited in my Chinese literature, but the two books I do have (“A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs” by Daniel Reid (1995), and “Chinese Herbal Medicine” by Daniel Reid (1993)) do acknowledge R.officinale, but the author does not state the reasons why this species is used.

  3. At one time, Frontier Herbs had a webpage about the rhubarbs:

    There are at least 50 species of rhubarb, many of them medicinal. The best quality medicinal rhubarb comes from the roots of two species – Rheum palmatum (palmate rhubarb) and R. officinale (medicinal rhubarb). A third, tanguiticum, was once designated as a separate species, but is now included as a variety of palmatum (tangut rhubarb). Both palmatum and officinale have the same active constituents (anthraquinones, tannins and sennosides), and their roots are used and sold interchangeably.

    The finest rhubarb root comes from the northwestern (Shensi, Kansu) and western (Szechwan) regions of China, where it was in use by the first century. It’s uncertain exactly when rhubarb first reached Europe, although it was no later than the ninth century. European (and U.S.) demand for medicinal rhubarb grew steadily for hundreds of years, until the 1900s, when use declined rapidly with the development of modern medicine.

    U.S. interest in the medicinal use of rhubarb was renewed with the 1988 publication of “Calling of An Angel.” This book is the story of Canadian nurse Rene Caisse and essiac, an herbal formula used by Cassie for over 50 years to treat cancer patients. One ingredient in her formula was turkey rhubarb, at one time a designation for Chinese rhubarb obtained through a Turkish trade route and now a common name for Rheum palmatum. In the pharmacopoeias of the time, the roots of both R. officinale and palmatum are listed as medicinal rhubarb, so what Cassie called turkey rhubarb surely contained the roots of both species.

  4. Marion Benney of Ontario, Canada:

    I use the Turkish rhubarb (Rheum Palmatum) because this is the one that Rene Caisse herself switched to when she found that it produced more satisfactory results on her patients than did the wild rhubarb growing here in Ontario, Canada. Turkish Rhubarb (Rheum Palmatum) is also known as Chinese Rhubarb because of its 5000 year history of successful use in Chinese medicine. It is one of the oldest and best known of Chinese herbal medicines, known to the Chinese as “Da Huang” of the Han Dynasty.

    Health World Online’s Herbal Medicine site treats Turkish Rhubarb and Indian Rhubarb as one and the same. I tend not to agree with that because from what I know and in my opinion, Indian Rhubarb is the common wild rhubarb that grows here in North America.

Some Advocates of Indian rhubarb (Rheum officianale):

  1. Max Costello (Sojo Products Ltd, UK), maker of “Can T”:

    The Resperin formula uses Rheum officinale (Indian Rhubarb), a plant of 3m – 10 ft tall, considered better than the Rheum palmatum by the Chinese from as far back as Tang dynasty when, in 659 AD, the Xin Xin Ben Cao (or Tang Ben Cao), the world’s first pharmacopoeia, recognised the Hebei province rhubarb (R. palmatum) smaller and of poorer quality compared to the rhubarb of the Sichuan (R. officinale).

    This common garden plant bears no resemblance to the Rheum palmatum mentioned in the Flor-Essence and other products. This is probably the one of the most important reasons for the difference in the performance of the different formulas apart from the actual quantities. Rheum officinale prefers a slightly warmer climate at lower altitude than the very cold climate native to R. palmatum.

  2. Greg Fearn (Alternative Health Supplies, Australia), “Sheep Sorrel Formula”:

    So many people do not seem to realize that one of the main differences between the genuine products and the many fakes is the substitution of the correct Indian Rhubarb (Rheum officianale) with the Turkish or Chinese Rhubarb (Rheum palmatum). The Indian variety is chemically very different from the other varieties and is now extremely hard to find and extremely expensive (approximately $75 a kilo while the other is $15 a kilo).

    Most herbal encyclopedias do not separate the many varieties of Rhubarb and it is not until you explore Chinese herbal references that you uncover the different varieties and chemical properties. The price and availability is probably the main reason the fakes use the alternatives.

  3. Peg Ghost Dancer Wene (Medicine Walk, Lindenwold, NJ):

    As to your questions about the Rheum officinale vs. Rheum palmatum. From all that I have read there is basically no difference between the two of the as far as potency goes. I went through my rather full library of Herb books and found that their really is no difference other than some visual characteristics, and where they originate. Rheum palmatum is from the higher and colder elevations of China and Tibet. Rheum officinale is normally grown at lower elevations, yet it is grown in China also.

    Rheum rhaponticum is English rhubarb and does not have the medicinal potency of the two listed above. I prefer to use the Rheum officinale.

  4. “Canadian EssiacĀ®” distributor Robert Angus (Everest Foods, Halifax, Nova Scotia):

    What we use in our product seems to work well together synergistically, which is most important to the expected outcome.

Comments about the essiac herbs by Professor Michael Thrasher of Trent University:

July 6, 2000

I am a professor of the PhD Native Studies program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, and have worked in my Native community for more than a quarter of a century with issues of health and well being. I have followed this explosion of “essiac” and its various threads and discussions by all of the “experts” on the web.

My question to all who research this product and its ingredients:

If the medicine was originated by a First Nations (Indian, Native, Aboriginal, Native American) medicine person, would it not be safe to assume that the herbs used in it were the local variety available to a healer from Northern Ontario?

This statement does not preclude the fact that the original Indian formula could possibly be improved with other herbs, it simply says the originators of the formula (the Indian healers, not Rene Cassie) obviously knew what they were doing when they used the local flora to produce their healing formula.

It would seem that in the face of no other evidence then, that the original rhubarb available to the INDIANS was the correct one to use. Availability of herbs is NOT the prime criteria for choice of herbs in Indian medicine, the right and correct plant is.

This is not to say the formula cannot be improved, simply that the original First Nation master of this herbal remedy knew and understood it completely.

Walk softly on Mother Earth