Around 1817, a team of workers digging a ditch in London inadvertently sparked a horticultural revolution. The ditch was in the Chelsea Physic Garden, on the bank of the River Thames. The spark was the accidental burial of some dormant crowns of rhubarb, that celery-like vegetable that was, at the time, primarily used as medicine. While field rhubarb is a warm‑weather crop, fresh, salmon‑colored stalks started poking out of the dirt mounds in the Physic Garden that winter—the first of many surprises in the unlikely life of cultivated rhubarb.
After that, accident became technique: The cultivation method is known today as rhubarb forcing. The practice has been perfected in northern England’s “Rhubarb Triangle,” the area between Leeds, Bradford, and Wakefield, where the cold, wet climate mimics that of rhubarb’s native Siberia. Produce from the Rhubarb Triangle is of such quality that Yorkshire forced rhubarb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status in 2010. “Outdoor rhubarb is a bit stringy and wooden and sour,” Robert Tomlinson, a fourth-generation grower in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, told me. “Forced rhubarb is a lot more tender.”