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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Clethra (alnifolia) Honey, Boston Honey Company, Boston, Massachusetts

I got my Clethra honey from the Boston Honey Company. They have a store at the Boston Public Market, a year-round, indoor market that sells locally produced food and crafts that opened in 2015.

The Boston Honey Company, a division of Reseska Apiaries, Inc. out of Holliston, MA, started humbly in 1996 when Andy Reseska, the chief apiarist, got his first bee colony. It looks like that's all it took for him to be hooked. The number of his hives grew- now numbering over 2,100- and four years later he became a full time apiarist. The Boston Honey Company was born.

The Boston Honey Company produces Massachusetts honey, from Eastern Massachusetts (wildflower, Clethra, Black Locust, Japanese Knotweed and Basswood), Northeast honey, from Malone, New York (Goldenrod, Aster, Knapweed, and wildflower), and Southern honey, from Georgia (Orange Blossom, Gallberry and Tupelo). Andy has beehives that winter in Georgia and come up north in early spring to pollinate apple blossoms, but while they are down south they also produce honey. All of the Boston Honey Company's honey is raw, unfiltered and Kosher. Apart from liquid honey, they also produce comb honey, soap, lip balm, hand creams, and beeswax candles.

The honeys local to Massachusetts are from apiaries that are spread across lands that played important roles in US history or are synonymous with early colonist settlements: revolutionary battlefields of Lincoln, the farms of Concord, public park lands in Sudbury and Sherborn, as well as other places with abundant flowers: community centers in Weston and many private lands. These lands- farms and fields- probably haven't changed much, so, in essence, the honey that the early colonists produced likely had many of the same floral sources and would have been very similar to what you can now taste in the Massachusetts honey collection.

Clethra anifolia, showing flowers arranged on racemes
Clethra honey is harvested from a flowering bush, Clethra alnifolia. It is also known as coastal sweet pepperbush, coastal pepperbush, Alderleaf pepperbush, White Alder or summer sweet. According to wikipedia, the "pepper" part of the common name comes from the fact that  the mature fruits look a little like peppercorns. They only looks like peppercorns, though, and are not spicy. Of note, Clethra alnifolia was mentioned in Linnaeus's monumental Species Plantarum in 1753. "Clethra" is the ancient Greek name for alder and "alnifolia" refers to the type of secondary veins of the leaves, which resemble alder leaves. So, the name basically says it is an alder-like plant with alder-like leaves, but not an alder.

"Ruby Spice" Clethra showing the pink flowers
Clethra alnifolia is native to eastern North America, from southern Nova Scotia and Maine to Northern Florida. The flowers, which produce a sweet fragrance that is attractive to bees and butterflies, are white or pale pink, and are produced in racemes- a type of flower clusters with each flower attached to a central stem at equal distances, and with the flowers at the base of the stem developing first. The flowers have also been described at "fluffy and bottle brush like."  These racemes can be up to 15 centimeters long and 2 centimeters broad (!)  and would go a long way to making a garden both visually and olfactorily pleasing. Furthermore if you are a gardener with shady patches, take note: it is one of only a few flowering shrubs that produces a good bloom in a shady location.

Clethra also likes wet conditions. It grows in wet forests, in wetlands and bogs, and alongside woodland streams. In fact is is sometimes planted alongside a stream or pond to reduce erosion. One site I found elegantly described it as "a useful element in riparian restoration projects." It isn't often that you see the word "riparian." 

It is also generally quite healthy. One website stated that "it is remarkably free of any disease, insect or physiological problems." And, it is also not without its admirers. The Virginia Native Plant Society named it "Wildflower of the year" in 2015. 
Clethra honey

However, apart from its use in riparian restoration, as an attractive garden plant, and as a honey source, it doesn't seem to have any other obvious uses: it doesn't have any medicinal or culinary properties. But perhaps as a honey source, it has value enough.

The Clethra honey I have is a lovely golden yellow with a slight tinge of red, and contains some fine particulate matter, which isn't surprising because it is unfiltered. It has a medium to thick texture. It is very easy to swirl it into a good sized swirl on a tooth pick. It is thick enough that it rolls around in your mouth before it starts to dissolve. It has a sweet, herbal, slightly mellow grassy taste with a hint of licorice and a slightly spicy, peppery kick at the end. Very unusual and quite tasty! Too good to bake with, but it would be very nice in an herbal tea, on hot, buttered toast, in hot cereal, or right out of the jar. 

If you are in the mood for a good quality and unusual honey but you aren't close to Boston, you can buy it on line from the Boston Honey Company.  If you are in the Boston area, you can find it, along with other delicious local fare, a the Boston Public Market.


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