rhubarb – an international traveller

Illustration from http://wildyorkshire.blog/2020/01/rhubarb-animation/ – Home to the wonderful Richard Bell’s illustrations.

The pond is now awaiting plants and water feature. The raised veggie bed has been planted – at this rate the garden is soon going to look immaculate.

Any way, today’s post is about rhubarb. Apparently it’s a bit of a new comer being only about two centuries old on our plates before that it was used as a drug with purgative qualities – which means than my ancestral rhubarb must be fairly close to the first flowering of rhubarb as a pudding rather than a useful asset for any physician. Each generation on my mother’s side of the family is issued with a crown of rhubarb when they set up home for themselves. My rhubarb has come with me wherever I’ve lived- a crown divided and carefully replanted in a new location. I know for sure that it originated from my great-grandfather’s garden – an unusual piece of family history but there you go.

I should note that the Romans thought that anyone who ate rhubarb was a barbarian – not sure where or why that idea came about but it’s a thought to toy with next time you tuck into your crumble.

Chinese rhubarb has its first mention in 2700 BC where it was listed as a drug. It seems to have travelled to Europe during the fourteenth century – it’s description as East Indian rhubarb describes the route it travelled by. And yes it does bring Marco Polo into the equation. Someone once sent Thomas Cromwell – Henry VIII’s Putney minister- a rhubarb seed as a valuable gift. In 1542 rhubarb was worth ten times the value of cinnamon and four times the value of saffron. Apparently physicians wanted dramatic effects so that their patients knew they were getting value for money – think we’ll move swiftly on from that particular image.

In 1653 China opened its borders with Russia and the Russians began to trade in rhubarb – it all sounds very exotic doesn’t it? In 1704 the Russians listed rhubarb as something that they had the trading monopoly on. It was heavily regulated. By the 1860s the bottom had dropped out of the market.

The culture of rhubarb as a plant rather than imported as a drug began in Padua. It arrived in England in it’s plant form as a seed during the reign of Charles I and was cultivated from root division from 1777 onwards. As well it might have been because for part of the seventeenth century it was more expensive than opium. Cultivation gradually extended across the country – most famously to the rhubarb triangle of Yorkshire, thanks in part to the development of cookery during the Georgian period.

And now the sun has come out for the first time today and my garden is looking nicely hydrated. I’ve just got a path to put in using rescued edging stones and an Alnwick rose to move to somewhere that it will be happier – but who would have thought so many historic people could have been lurking in a rhubarb bed.

Prior, Mary. (2009) Rhubarbaria. Prospect Books