I heard it was a cinch to grow, but since neither my husband nor I love it, we never tried growing rhubarb. But when a neighbour up the street offered up a few stalks last week, I said sure. She tore three stalks, each topped with a large, billowing leaf, and I handed one to each of my three sons.
We had run into the neighbour and her kids on the street, and the kids had been playing at her house. By the time we collected ourselves to go, we were late for lunch. My little guy, two years old, was hungry, and I watched as he made his way through the better part of his leaf.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure my oldest son did say what he later claimed he said, which was that his brother shouldn’t eat the leaf. But I kind of didn’t hear it, plus my oldest isn’t above issuing random directives – the warning just didn’t register.
But it may have contributed to my coagulating thoughts as I walked the half block to our house, watching the babe munch away. Why was it that I had never heard of anyone eating the leaf of rhubarb, but only the stalk?
When we arrived home, the kids played in the yard while I headed upstairs to the computer. I believe I typed in something like “is rhubarb leaf edible” and quickly discovered that absolutely isn’t. On to a call with the Ontario Poison Centre, whose nurse called me back after consulting a toxicologist. Verdict: hospital emergency, now.
When I told my oldest son what we needed to do and why, he said, “I told you he shouldn’t eat the leaf.” Fear and feeling dumb are an unhappy combination, so I replied, “What are you talking about? Who told you rhubarb leaf is poisonous?” Shaken by my intensity but holding his ground, he said that he had learned it at school, during one of its frequent outdoor education awareness trips with an outstanding organization that I know does exactly this kind of activity with kids. There was nothing to do but keep quiet and feel dumber.
I took my three sons to emergency, not wanting to lose time finding childcare for the older two. The world class children’s hospital (silent prayer of thanks for living in Toronto) was waiting for me – I had told the Poison Centre where I was going and they had forwarded our records. I had to answer few questions and we were seen immediately. I knew enough to be both reassured and worried by the quick response. It’s wonderful to get excellent care quickly, but it also means you are potentially facing something serious.
And we were. Rhubarb leaf ingestion can lead to kidney, heart and brain malfunction (and other bad things) in significant doses. Moderate ingestion can cause renal failure. It seemed like there were limited case studies though, and I suspect they had little, if any, information on ingestion by a toddler.
They took all precautions. My son was given charcoal in chocolate milk (the charcoal and calcium helps absorb and bind to toxins and flush them harmlessly out of the body) – and he chugged the blackish sludge. They monitored his heart, inserted an IV drip, took lots of blood samples to check kidney, liver, and other body functions. They took an ECG. They kept checking his blood pressure.
It was a lot of activity, but in the end all was well. In fact, he showed no symptoms at all. It was the best of outcomes – to have the professional assistance of this amazing hospital, and not have needed it.
We were a novel case there. Several people disclosed, to my relief, that they didn’t know rhubarb leaf was poisonous. The emergency doctor said she was surprised why there weren’t more rhubarb leaf poisonings, given that the plant is found in many Toronto yards, but ours was her first incident.
We were puzzling to them too. About four hours into our stay on the basis that my son had ingest almost a whole rhubarb leaf, the toxicologist turned to me, looked directly in my eyes, and asked, “Did he really ingest almost a whole rhubarb leaf?” It had to be rhetorical, but I couldn’t place the source of the incredulity. Was it that my son had eaten the leaf and displayed no symptoms, or that a toddler would actually eat a larger-than-an-adult-hand raw leaf?
The thing is, our family grows a big (for a small urban lot) garden. It’s nothing for my kids to go out there and eat the food we grow, including various kinds of leaves (lettuces, herbs, big curly kale), so the rhubarb leaf wasn’t a stretch for my son. I did know to be careful of potato leaf ingestion (and taught my kids about that), but as we don’t grow rhubarb, it was off my radar and I just didn’t know of the leaves’ toxicity.
Incidentally, the next night, more than 24 hours after we were released from hospital, and at the cottage where we always spend Labour Day, my youngest son barfed. He cried for about 15 minutes too. Sick episodes like this are so rare for us, and I gritted my teeth as I called the Poison Centre again, now that we were 2.5 hours plus a half hour boat ride in pitch blackness to our fabulous hospital. But we kept watch, and it was soon clear that his illness was completely unrelated to the rhubarb leaf. But it was weird.
Anyway, in case you are not familiar with it, rhubarb leaf looks like this. It can grow as big as your desktop screen.
Please avoid. Mostly because of the facts, but also because I told you so. And so did a cheeky but well-informed seven year old.