Tuesday 23 April 2013

Yorkshire rhubarb

This post contains Yorkshire dialect and ends in a rude rhyme

 Us tykes grows champion rhu’bab
(We know how to grow good rhubarb in Yorkshire)

A  hundred years ago Yorkshire was the European centre of rhubarb production. Not only did huge quantities go by train, the rhubarb express, to Covent garden, further supplies went on to Paris. In a thirty square mile triangle between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield early last century, there were 200 producers. After the war the industry fell into severe decline. Now on a much smaller scale, production has revived. Rhubarb is again fashionable. Wakefield has an annual rhubarb festival  in February and the industry is now a tourist attraction. Yorkshire rhubarb is ‘forced’ in heated completely dark sheds. It was traditionally picked by candlelight and you could hear the plants grow as the buds burst. We used to take the students on an annual visit. We also would go to Cawood experimental station where director Frank Smith built up a huge collection of traditional varieties. Many varieties had debilitating virus which were ‘cleaned up’ by modern specialist techniques. The national collection now resides at RHS Harlow Carr garden. The now smaller rhubarb triangle is said to be between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell.

Rhu’bab likes it a bit parky  (it’s a native of Siberia)

In some parts of the world rhubarb grows all year round but in temperate climates like our own, it has a winter dormancy and needs to accumulate cold before growth will restart in Spring. The rhubarb triangle is in a huge frost pocket  between the Pennine hills and  provides suitable chilly conditions! It is suggested that in the  past, pollution in this industrial area, caused leaves to be shed early in Autumn and get the process of satisfying  the cold requirement off to a quick start. Modern growers  keep an accurate record  of temperatures and when a specific number of ‘day degrees’ of cold are accumulated, they know the rhubarb can be forced in the sheds. Timperley Early, the variety I grow myself, is an example of an excellent rhubarb with a low cold requirement.
Apart from the cold, other aspects of history and geography made the triangle eminently suitable for rhubarb.
  • The soil is deep and fertile.
  • There is heavy rainfall in the Pennines.
  • The West Riding was well placed in emerging long distance transport systems.
  • The local wool industry provided a plentiful supply of cheap wool-shoddy waste. This ‘manure’ is a nitrogen rich material that releases its bounty over a three year period. This is the time it takes rhubarb to attain sufficient size to be forced before exhausted, in early summer, it is thrown away!
  • Soot can be beneficial to the soil and polluting sulphur helped limit fungus disease.
  • Cheap Yorkshire coal fueled the forcing sheds. No longer.
  • With the pollution, nothing else would grow - I think I might have made this one up!

Lerning y’
(rhubarb fact sheet)
  • Rhubarb leaves (but not the stalk!) contain oxalic acid and are poisonous 
  • Some gardeners make an infusion of rhubarb leaves to control pests, although in view of the above it might not be a good idea!
  • Apart from its well known laxative properties, before modern medicine, the drug rhacoma extracted from its root, was greatly valued for its healing properties. In the seventeenth century this drug sold for three times the price of opium!
  • During the second world war the price of rhubarb was restricted to one shilling a pound (sounds expensive to me).

'Ear all, see all, say nowt;
Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt;
And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt-
 allus do it fer thissen 
(Grow your own rhubarb)

This march is a very late season. Anxious to have our first pie this is the only occasion I will  allow myself to pick all the stalks

Rhubarb is a rewarding vegetable to grow at home. Because it is so easy many gardeners do not give it the treatment it deserves. Plant it in full sunshine and feed it. It benefits from a generous late winter top dressing of growmore, or better, Yara mila complex or similar balanced fertilizer. If you mulch rhubarb with plenty of farmyard manure or compost it will really thrive. Many gardeners like myself do not force it but choose to pull rhubarb sticks right through the spring and summer.
New gardeners sometime do not realise that when you remove the leaves from a plant  you weaken it. This is inevitable with rhubarb as you eat the petiole (the leaf stalk). New plants need a year or two without cropping to get started and even with an established plant, too many pies and crumbles is not a good idea. As a completely unscientific guide, my own clump in full foliage covers slightly more than a square meter and typically I might pull  ten stalks on about eight occasions  a year! If I actually liked rhubarb I might get away with a little more! I don’t strip the plant and do not take more than 25% of the petioles at a single picking. One final tip. Do not waste your time growing it from seed and never plant rhubarb from a dubious source. If a friend offers you stock from a moribund plant, refuse, it’s probably virused.

A month later and another pie, In a fortnight there will be another. By then the plant will be full size.

“Your rhubarb, I’ve noticed grows
By the outhouse where everyone goes!”
Grandad said, “Lad,
It isn’t so bad..
They’re family! Just people we knows!”



  1. A very amusing - but informative - post. I am a lover of Rhubarb, and can never get enough of it. For want of space, mine is in a less than ideal site, but it still produces enough for a couple of pickings each year. This year I bought a couple of Timperley Early plants to increase my stock, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they do. I'll resist the tempatation to pick some of their leaves this year and let them settle in properly.

  2. I wish I had put in a rhubarb area here but too late now as I no longer have the space.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  3. Snap - I've posted about rhubarb today too! It has a link to a piece about the rhubarb triangle on my website under places to visit with photos inside the sheds. Some rhubarb fields are alongside the motorway close to use.

    1. Snap, just beat you by a couple of hours!
      I have enjoyed reading your post as well as previous ones you have done on rhubarb.

  4. It must be something in the air, three rhubarb posts in one day. I'll have to resist rhubarb crumble this year whilst my new crowns are settling in, but I might risk a couple of stalks next year.

    1. I'm afraid it's the crumble bit I like best! (Jo has posted on rhubarb today!}

  5. I never knew there was a rhubarb triangle. I imagine this is where pie crusts disappear and are never heard from again.

  6. That' s a lot of information of Rhubarb. The first time I have been eating rhubarb pie was about 40 years ago when I stayed in Southampton as an au pair. Since that time I am addicted to it. I have one old plant in the garden which I treat with manure in winter. To grow Rhubarb from seed is indeed a waste of time like you say, I have the experience. For 3 years I sowed Rhubarb 'Queen Victoria' , an early red one. I got many plants, so lots of give aways for friends. But only a few got the nice red colour and tasted well. The rest were really a waste of time.

    1. Thanks for the additional information Jannecke. I have never personally tried it from seed but it is analogous to taking a Cox's Pippin apple pip and sowing it. Once in a million you will get a fabulous new apple but most of the time you will get something highly inferior.

  7. OMG. I learned so much on Rhubarb here. I always looked at it as common and used in pies. Native to Siberia? Now that is one tough plant. Liked the limerick too. Cute.

  8. I need some Rhubarb, now. First of all we need to learn how to make custard again, well, the house boss does, not the same with that horrid tinned stuff. I did a post not so long ago on the .Iris Katherine Hodgkin, think I called her Katharine but never mind. I was reluctant to call her a Reticulata, I now see what I was looking for in your post (histrioides) thank you.


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