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Sunday, 6 August 2017


Rhubarb root has been used for medical purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years. In around 2,700 BC, the Chinese Png-tzao-kan-mu, ("The Classic Herbal"), the first ever treatise on pharmacology, mentioned the plant. It recorded rhubarb being cultivated for medicinal purposes, primarily for its internal cleansing qualities.

The ancient Greeks imported rhubarb from a barbarian area called Rha in Russia, where it grew in abundance around the Volga river. Because of its source, the Greeks called the plant "rha-barbaros".

In 6th century AD China, rhubarb was given to the Wu emperor of the Liang dynasty to cure his fever but he was warned that the plant being a most potent drug must be taken with great moderation.

Rhubarb was introduced to medieval Europe by Marco Polo, who brought it back from the court of the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan.

The culture of rhubarb for medicinal purposes in England began in the 1570s when the plant began to exported from China to Europe. Its usage rapidly spread due to the belief that eating rhubarb improves one's state of health, as it results in "pouring" excess humors from the body. William Shakespeare made mention of rhubarb in this very sense in his play Macbeth.

The first records of the rhubarb stalks being used not as a medicine but as a food in their own right first appeared in 17th century England. This usage was first recorded after affordable sugar became available to common people and the stalks were used in tarts and pies.

John Bartram was the first recorded American to cultivate rhubarb. He grew medicinal and culinary rhubarbs in Philadelphia from the 1730s, planting seeds sent him from London by the botanist Peter Collinson.

Rhubarb was not grown commercially in England until the 1770s when a doctor and pharmacist named William Hayward started a plantation at Banbury in Oxfordshire, using seeds sent from Russia in 1762.

During the first Opium War in 1839, the Chinese believed the interruption of Chinese rhubarb exports would incapacitate British soldiers because of constipation. Their ploy failed.

At Buffalo, New York, the US Customs Court ruled in 1947 that despite rhubarb being botanically a vegetable, it is in fact a fruit as that it how it is normally eaten.

Rhubarb thrives in the wet cold winters in Yorkshire, England. The Rhubarb Triangle is a 9-square-mile (23 km2) triangle in West Yorkshire famous for producing early forced rhubarb. From the first decade of the 20th century to 1939 the rhubarb industry expanded and at its peak covered an area of about 30 square miles (78 km2).

West Yorkshire once produced 90% of the world's winter forced rhubarb from the forcing sheds that were common across the fields there.

Rhubarb shed in the Rhubarb Triangle. Wikipedia

At the peak of British rhubarb production in the 1940s, special 'Rhubarb Express' trains would carry 200 tons of the stuff a day from where it was grown in Yorkshire to London's Covent Garden.

Source Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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