Riwas: Nature’s Remedy

Riwas, a variety of wild rhubarb (Rheum ribes), is a natural, seasonal plant often regarded as a natural remedy due to its wide range of therapeutic properties. The people of the

Riwas: Nature’s Remedy
July 08, 2024

Riwas, a variety of wild rhubarb (Rheum ribes), is a natural, seasonal plant often regarded as a natural remedy due to its wide range of therapeutic properties. The people of the Kurdistan Region and many other regions around the world have relied on it for generations as both food and medicine. Abundant in the mountainous areas, particularly on Mount Qalandar in Soran District east of Erbil, it appears each spring and is eagerly anticipated.

Food and medicine

Riwas is part of the Polygonaceae family and thrives at elevations between 1,000 and 4,000 meters above sea level, nestled among stones and cliffs in temperate and subtropical regions like Western Asia. It is native to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Harvested as a commercial vegetable, it is gathered from the wild in Anatolia, the Kurdistan Region, and northwestern Iran early in the spring.

Some people mistakenly think it is a fruit because of its unique flavor, which is reminiscent of green apple with a blend of sweetness and tartness. It is commonly used in sweets and pies with a bit of sugar to accentuate its distinctive taste. However, riwas is actually a vegetable.

Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus first described it in 1753, naming it Rheum ribes. The term “ribes,” which first appeared in the Medieval medical botany book The Book of Simple Medicaments, is derived from the Arabic word “ribas,” while “rheum” originates from the Greek word “rheon,” used by Greek physician Dioscorides to describe medicinal rhubarb, which likely derives from the ancient Persian word “rewend,” believed to refer to this specific variety.

The flower-bearing stalks are the edible parts of the plant. The stalks are sliced and cooked with eggs in Turkey to make a dish known as iskinli yumurta, whereas in Iran its enjoyed as khoresh rivas, or rhubarb stew. In Turkey, Syria, the Kurdistan Region, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, locals also often consume the stalks raw in salads or sell them in local markets. 

A divine pharmacy

Riwas is considered one of the most essential medicinal plants in many parts of West Asia, providing vitamins A, B, and C. In traditional herbal medicine, the root is used to treat diabetes, hemorrhoids, ulcers, and diarrhea, and to stimulate digestion and appetite. In the Kurdistan Region, herbalists utilize the plant’s dried parts and roots to treat anemia, loss of appetite, weakness, anxiety, depression, and diabetes and to improve cardiovascular health. In Iran, it is valued as a pain reliever and mood enhancer.

The benefits of riwas extend beyond these uses. It may alleviate symptoms of some liver diseases, provide antioxidants that lower the risk of cataracts and cancer, and treat oral ulcers. It can also reduce symptoms of chronic pancreatitis, relieve menstrual pain, regulate blood sugar, and promote brain health.

However, excessive consumption of riwas can sometimes cause health issues. It is best to consume the stalks only and avoid the leaves, which can contain harmful substances. Cooking can reduce these harmful substances, so it’s advised to avoid eating rhubarb raw.

Dr. Yassin Ahmed Rashid is a University Professor and Expert in Botany.

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