There are simpler things to do in life than lug rhubarb from China to Venice. The distances are huge, the sun unforgiving and the plov absolutely inedible at times. Even today it’s far from straightforward, so imagine a time without ashfelt roads, conveniently located caravanserai or an abundance of vodka.
Given the general hassle and expense involved in carrying the plant across the whole breadth of Asia, and the challenges of preserving it from the desert sun and attacks of indicriminate insects, it was no wonder that rhubarb commanded such a premium in western trading cities.
In 1542 rhubarb was sold in France for ten times the price of cinnamon and four times that of saffron.
Over one hundred years later, they were still raking it in. In an English price list from 1657, rhubarb retailed for 16 shillings per pound.
Sound reasonable? Well, maybe, given that today it costs around 3 pounds, 7 shillings and 3 pence. Or just GBP 3.38 in modern parlance.
Of course, back then, you could expect to get far more bang for your buck. 16 shillings in 1657 equates to GBP 1,182.35 in relative worth, using average earnings of the period, apparently.
Compare this with other perennial chinoiserie faves on the same inventory: opium, which retailed for only 6 shillings, and scammony* which sold for 12 shillings per pound.
So, rhubarb, quite the cash crop, non?
* Yes. I had to look up scammony too.