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4 February 2014

Rhubarb Ramblings

Following my earlier article on growing rhubarb, I thought I'd continue with some general information.
Earliest records date back to 2700 BC in China where Rhubarb was cultivated for medicinal purposes, usually in a dried form as a laxative. Lindley's Treasury of Botany, states that the technical name of the genus (Rheum) is said to be derived from Rha, the ancient name of the Volga, on whose banks the plants grow. Others derive the name from the Greek rheo ('to flow'), in allusion to beetroot's purgative properties.
It was first grown in this country in the 1760s for scientific purposes at Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens - R. palmatum being the variety grown.
About 1777, Hayward, an apothecary, of Banbury, in Oxfordshire, started the cultivation of rhubarb with plants of R. Rhaponticum, using seeds sent from Russia in 1762, and produced a drug of excellent quality, sold as the genuine Rhubarb.
On his death, he left his rhubarb plantations to the ancestor of the present cultivators of the rhubarb fields at Banbury, where R. officinale is also now cultivated, from specimens first introduced into this country in 1873.
Rhubarb is now grown in thousands of gardens and allotments throughout the UK every year, but the main area for commercial production is in West Yorkshire's Rhubarb Triangle. This is now the area between Morley, Rothwell and Wakefield though originally it was larger, extending to Bradford and Leeds.
The date when rhubarb was first grown in the Wakefield area is not known, though it appeared first as an ornamental garden plant. By the 1840s however, rhubarb was being grown by market gardeners for stewing and to use in pies and jams, and it has now been an important part of the local economy for over 150 years.
Commercial production is carried out in large forcing sheds where the plants are grown in warm, dark conditions. The process of forcing was probably 'discovered' in the 1820s but it wasn't taken up by market gardeners on a large scale until the 1880s. The forcing sheds are a unique, but rapidly disappearing, part of the local landscape. Some growers offer tours of the sheds between January and March.
Although originally grown for local markets, special rhubarb trains were soon leaving Wakefield for London every day carrying tons of rhubarb. During this period, commercial production in other parts of the country gave way to the Rhubarb Triangle. The introduction of an annual Rhubarb Festival shows it's importance to Wakefield.
Rhubarb production probably flourished in this area of the country as it had the ideal combination of conditions necessary for large scale cultivation. These included:

suitable soil and enough rainfall
supplies of soot and ash from the local industry to condition the soil
cheap coal from local mines to heat the sheds
large numbers of small market gardeners
There are few records available to tell how the industry actually developed as it was originally carried out by small market gardeners.
Although it's heyday may be long past, rhubarb growing is still flourishing, while it's use has been championed by celebrity chefs on TV.
In February 2010, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission, putting it in the company of products such as Champagne, Stilton cheese, Melton Mowbray pork pies and Parma ham. This can only be a good thing for the future of rhubarb in West Yorkshire.
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