Wakefield is part of the Wakefield-Leeds-Morley rhubarb-growing triangle and the plant has been an important part of the local economy for over 150 years.
Originally grown for local markets it wasn't long before special rhubarb trains were leaving Wakefield for London every day laden will tons of rhubarb. Although this heyday may be long past, rhubarb growing is still flourishing and the introduction of an annual Rhubarb Festival marks the importance of it to Wakefield.
Rhubarb originates from the Russia/China border area. It has been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes, usually in a dried form as a laxative. It was first grown in this country in the 1760s for scientific purposes at Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens.
It is unknown when the plant began to be cultivated in the Wakefield area. It gradually began to appear, firstly, as an ornamental garden plant although some may have been grown for medicinal reasons or to eat. However, by the 1840s local market gardeners were growing rhubarb as a fruit for stewing and to use in pies and jams.
The idea of 'forcing' rhubarb - growing it indoors under dark and warm conditions - was probably 'discovered' in the 1820s but it was not taken up by market gardeners on a large scale until the 1880s. The long low 'forcing' sheds are a unique, and now a rapidly disappearing, part of the local landscape.
The rhubarb sheds are an eerie place by candlelight and, if you are very quiet, you can actually hear the plants growing …
Rhubarb flourished in this part of the country because it seems to have had the ideal combination of conditions necessary to cultivate rhubarb on a large scale. These included:
- suitable soil
- sufficient rainfall
- supplies of soot and ash to condition the soil
- cheap fuel to heat the sheds
- large numbers of small market gardeners
Little is known in detail about the development of the rhubarb industry in the area because there were no big growers only small market gardeners and few records were kept.
There has been a revival of interest in Yorkshire in recent years. In February 2010, Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Commission’s Protected Food Name scheme which puts it on a par with Champagne, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese and Parma ham among others.
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