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December 03, 2013


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It is just an old European country apt for travel and study

although you have to say that our swine crave its pigly seed. (I'm sorry if this seems a little boar-ish.)

Richard J

It does, thinking about it, suggest an alternative history in which Britain solves the balance of payments problem with China not by opium, but by selective breeding experts.


"The Chinese sense our power, Mandrake, and they seek the life essence."

Richard J



In fact, the Chinese weren't far off - just out of date. Transcontinental rhubarb caravans were a big earner under the Ming dynasty. See here:

it was not until the trading path known as the Silk Route or Silk Road became well-travelled during the time of the Mongolian peace in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that the reddish stalks became used throughout the rest of the world.

Traders to China brought what they could back with them but the cost of transporting these plants in a usable fashion was quite high, with the result that rhubarb could be as expensive or more so than other Chinese luxury items like silk and satin.

Across bright desolation, day by day,
To keep our bowels as regular as planned,
We pilgrims tread our isolated way
Along the Rhubarb Road to Samarkand.


Though why the hell you couldn't just grow the stuff in Europe instead of importing it at massive expense, I don't know. Rhubarb isn't a particularly delicate plant. My parents grew it in the back garden.

Igor Belanov

I think rhubarb is a lot more dangerous than opium, and I live just outside this geographical phenonemnon:


I do find rhubarb particularly unaddictive though.


Rhubarb isn't a particularly delicate plant

Not the kind you grow these days, but presumably that is a hybrid that has been specifically bred to flourish in British gardens? As I said on that twitter, biotechnology isn't all petri dishes and genome sequencers - a lot of it is about shovelling manure and wanking off pigs.

Also, the rhubard they're talking about was grown for its medicinal properties - eating rhubard is quite modern. Growing medicinal plants from seed is a thankless task; they tend to come up in weak variations and presumably cuttings would have been a problem for the same reason that the stuff was so expensive - they would have degenerated badly in transit.


Rhubarb AND custard:

Times News ‏@TimesNewsdesk 1h
Cameron trade trip secures £45 million UK-China pig semen deal http://thetim.es/


dsquared: true, but if the reward was that you were able to grow something in your back garden that was literally worth its weight in silver, you'd think people would have put the effort in.

Igor: A special express train carrying rhubarb was run by the Great Northern Railway Company from Ardsley station every weekday night

Wow, that's much better than just bringing the cheque and the postal order.


you'd think people would have put the effort in.

They did; that's why it eventually got cultivated in Europe. It wasn't an easy job though, and they spent ages not understanding why the domestically grown version was nothing like as potent as the true "Chinese" (a lot of it actually Russian apparently) rhubarb. The answer to why this might be the case is apparently in "Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug" by Clifford Foust, but I haven't found a preview version of that book yet. Here's a review - basically I think the answer is that the science of botany and the kind of rhubard you can grow in your back garden developed alongside each other. I own a similar book about the development of the tulip and it's fascinating.


Good Lord. Thanks.

belle le triste

"In the United Kingdom, the first rhubarb of the year is harvested by candlelight"

^^^From wikipedia. My mum grew it most years, forcing it with bits of drainpipe: the candlelight thing I didn't know, and am delighted to discover.

Dan Hardie

There's a politely stinging academic putdown in that review:

'Professor Foust suggests that Russian interest in the
rhubarb trade developed in the 1630s, but he is careful not to be too categorical as he is presumably
aware that the plant was known there much earlier, even entering Richard James's Anglo-Russian
dictionary of 1618.'


dsquared may be limited in some respects, but by God the man knows his rhubarb.

Dan Hardie

Am I the only one who wanted to correct his spelling, but then wondered if there was in fact some esoteric significance to calling the stuff 'rhubard'?

Barry Freed

No Dan, you're not the only one. B&T: best rhubarb blogging on the nets.

Dan Hardie

Anyway, looks like I lost that fiver I bet Richard: 'no, you really *can't* work a mention of rhubarb into the next topic Jamie posts on...'

Richard J

I'm just now recalling that my two closest friends decided to immortalise me in my college yearbook with the quote "of course Wakefield is the rhubarb capital of Europe".


Another great book about the difficulties experienced in cultivating a medicinal plant in conditions very different from its native environment, and how much hard work and inspirational herbiculture is required to really make a success of selectively breeding for potency is "The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code Of Silence And The Biggest Marijuana Bust In American History".

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