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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Wild Icelandic Honey (Rima Villihunang), Southern Iceland

When you think of Iceland- land of fire and ice- honey and honey bees probably aren't the first things that come to mind. Might not even be in the top 100. With its cold, rainy climate, long winters and majestic, wind swept landscapes of lava flows and snow capped peaks, it may be hard to imagine that Iceland produces honey at all, but it does. 

Iceland & Europe
Iceland lies on the 66o latitude, the same as Alaska, but the Gulf stream works its magic and produces more moderate, and warmer temperatures than you'd expect. The summer average temperature is 58 oF and winter temperatures, at least in the southern part of the island, generally hover around freezing, making honey production a possibility.

As you can imagine, though, Iceland posses many challenges for bees and beekeepers. For one, honey bees are not native to Iceland. Bees are imported from Sweden and Norway (Buckfast bees) where they are hardy enough to withstand challenging weather conditions. 

Which brings us to the weather. And it isn't so much that Iceland is cold, but windy. The wind blows incessantly which is a problem if you are bee out foraging. And the harvest season is short. Spring comes late and summers only last a few weeks, so there isn't much time for the hive population to get big enough (or strong enough) to survive the winter. To address this beekeepers use hives (polystyrene langstroth hives) that are designed to shelter bees from the windy, rainy, cold conditions. The hives also contain sensors that allow beekeepers to monitor the hive conditions remotely, giving them early warning if a colony is in trouble. 

Vegetation on lava flow (September), near Husafell
On the plus side, summer days are (very) long in the land of the midnight sun allowing bees to be out and about foraging nearly nonstop during the foraging season. Furthermore, the bees are virtually disease-free (import requirements for bees are very strict) and as a result, no chemicals are used in beekeeping. So, for bee survival in Iceland it all comes down to whether summer gains can overcome winter losses.

Beekeeping in Iceland is not for the faint of heart. There is a small, but by all accounts, resilient and enthusiastic group of apiarists who make up the Icelandic Beekeepers Association which was most recently reinvigorated by Egill Sigurgersson in 2000. The current iteration of the group has its beginnings in 1998 when Dr. Sigurgersson moved back to Iceland after his medical training to begin his practice in Iceland. He brought with him bees from Sweden to start a few hives. It took six months to get all the permissions needed, for licensing and certification of disease free status, and then, sadly, within two seasons all had died. He tried again, changing how he sheltered and winter fed them, but with the same results. He next tried bees from Norway and made other changes with some success. It seems that the trick for sustainability is to have at least 70-80% of the bees survive the winter.

Southern Iceland (September)
As alluded to, beekeeping in Iceland goes back a bit further. According to "The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting" by Ethel Eva Crane, some (unsuccessful) attempts were made in the 1930s to import European honey bees to Iceland. These were followed by others, notably in the 1950s, with hives surviving a few years. I read one account of an Austrian, Melitta Urbancic (poet, actress and sculptor), living in Iceland who had brought bees from Austria. She was the original founder of the Beekeeping Association of Iceland in 1952. Unfortunately authorities banned bees as being "too dangerous" in 1960 after a swarm (an impressive phenomena when upwards of 10,000 bees mass migrate to form a new hive) created concern about public safety. 

Currently things are on the upswing for Icelandic beekeepers. There seems to be about 15-20 beekeepers across the country with about 250 hives. Most are found in the southern part of the island, near Reykjevik. They have a thriving association, and interest within and outside of Iceland. They also have a facebook page
Gullfoss Falls

There are no large crops grown in Iceland so no mono-floral honey. Floral sources are those naturally found in the landscape: dandelion, salix (willow), blueberries, arctic angelixa, millefolium, white clover, and heather. With so few hives making a very limited amount of honey, Icelandic honey is not easy to find- it is only sold  in a few shops and markets- and is expensive when you do. However, you may be able to buy some by emailing the Beekeepers Association (

I bought my honey at the gift shop at Gullfoss falls in September (2016). It is a tiny jar (30 mls)- perfect for a souvenir- and was about 14 Euros.  It is Rima Villihunang (wild Icelandic honey) from Rimi, Grimsndsi (not sure of the spelling) in South Iceland and distributed by Urta Islandica, Hafnarfjordur. The tag on the jar says that the floral sources are wild berries, willows and heather and that the honey is raw and unrefined.  

Wild Icelandic Honey (Rima Villihunang)
It is a mellow, opaque, yellow color. It has already crystallized all the way through (although best before October 2019). It has a strong, warm floral scent (the scent of summer). The crystals are medium to small, and dissolve quickly. It is not overly sweet with a floral, fruity flavor, a little like summer ripe black grapes with a tangy, almost salty after taste. Unusual and very nice indeed. Well worth the price! Next time I'm in Iceland I'll make a point of getting a larger size(!) 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Mint Blossom Honey, Ho Chi Minh City,Vietnam

Mints (Lamiacae Mentha) are part of a (very) large family (Lamiacae) of mostly melliferous (i.e. nectar producing) aromatic herbs, some small shrubs and a few trees (e.g. Teak (Lamiacae Tectona grandis)). It seems that all of the “staple” herbs belong to this family: basil (Lamiacae Ocimum), oregano (Lamiacae Origanum majorana, Origanum vulgare), rosemary (Lamiacae Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Lamiacae Salvia), thyme (Lamiacae Thymus vulgaris), lemon balm (Lamiacae Melissa officianlis), and lavender (Lamiacae Lavandula angustifolia), to name a few.

Mint is named for the nymph, Minthe, who was seduced by the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto. As the story goes Pluto’s wife, in a jealous rage, trampled the nymph to dust, and Pluto turned her into a mint plant, an herb that becomes more aromatic when trampled on.

Mints, like most of the Lamiacae family, are almost exclusively perennial, are widely distributed throughout the world and thrive in many environments. On the whole, however, mints tend to prefer wet soils and partial sunlight. Mint is native to Europe and many varieties are found in the Mediterranean region. It is currently cultivated in Italy, the US (principally in Oregon, Indiana, Idaho, Ohio and Michigan), Japan, China, Australia and the UK (among other places).

It may go without saying but mint is generally easy to grow. The best way to propagate it is by using plant cuttings (i.e. put a mint cutting in water. roots will develop after a time and then you can plant the rooted cutting in soil). If you’ve ever had mint growing in your garden you will know that it are hardy, fast growing, extends its reach through runners, and has a tendency to become invasive.

spearmint with blossoms
There are many types of mint and classifying them is somewhat of a challenge. They cross breed with abandon, even from one species to another, and this results in many unique cultivars and a confusing roster of “scientific” names for the same cultivar. An example of crossbreeding is peppermint (Mentha piperita), which is a naturally occurring mint hybrid: it is a cross between watermint (Mentha aquatic) and spearmint (Mentha spicata).

To make it a bit more confusing, some plants are called “mint,” mostly because they have an appearance or scent reminiscent of mint, but do not belong to the mint family. In addition, the name used for a mint may also be used for another, completely different plant. An example is ‘Vietnamese mint’, which can refer to Lamiacae Elsholtzia ciliate, a member of the mint family or to Persicaria odorata, a member of the Polygonaceae family that contains smartweeds and pinkweeds.

Mint has been used throughout history for a variety of things; there is quite a bit of documentation about how the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used mint, mostly peppermint. It can be found in food, medicines and other products. It is used in teas, drinks, jellies, syrups, candies (i.e. mints), liqueurs and ice cream. Mint sauce goes hand in hand with some lamb dishes. It has also been used medicinally to treat stomach ailments and chest pains, and via aromatherapy to treat nausea. Mint essential oils are used as flavorings in breath fresheners, drinks, mouth washes, toothpaste, and chewing gums, and in air fresheners. It is also used as an ingredient in insecticides against wasps, hornets, ants, fleas and cockroaches. Its insect repelling qualities have also been put to use by planting it as a companion plant next to other plants that are susceptible to insect attack. In past times, mint was strewn across dirt floors to freshen the air as people walked on it.

While mint is often in the mix in wild flower honeys, it is rarely so abundant to be the sole floral source as a monofloral honey. Therefore, mint honey is generally a side product of large scale mint cultivation that is done for its essential oils (mints began to be cultivated on a large scale in the 1800s). To find mint honey, therefore, you should look to places that are known for their mint oil production and cultivate it on a large scale. The most commercially cultivated mints are peppermint (Mentha piperita), native spearmint (Mentha spicata), Scotch spearmint (Mentha gracilis), commint (Mentha arvensis) and apple mint (Mentha suaveloens).

My mint honey, courtesy of my friend Barbara who recently returned from a trip to Vietnam, is from a local supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City. It is packaged and distributed by Fire Phoenix and was collected in May of this year. I tried to find out more information about Fire Phoenix, mint cultivation in Vietnam and Vietnamese mint honey, and came up empty handed. So, I don’t have much information about this honey. In particular, I don’t know what kind of mint was the source of this honey, or even if the flower source was mint at all (and not a member of the Polygonaceae family!). The label just says it is “pure mint blossoms honey.” However, Vietnam is a producer of spearmint essential oils, so there is a good chance that this is spearmint honey.

Mint Blossom Honey
It is a medium thick, clear, yellow/orange honey that has a meady, somewhat fermented fragrance, and a mellow, somewhat musky flavor that subtly reminds me of a yeasty, white wine. It is not overly sweet, and doesn’t have a complicated taste. There is no after taste. It has the right consistency to be a good choice to drizzle over thick, plain yogurt, and would work well with creamy, milk cheeses. It would also do well in herbal teas, and hot cereals. I’m not sure where you can find it. You just may have to take a trip to Vietnam and hunt for it in local supermarkets! 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Raw Jungle Honey, Oaxaca, Mexico (Bidoo Collective)

I bought this raw Jungle honey from Follow The Honey, a honey specialty store in Cambridge, MA. This honey is from the jungles of Oaxaca, Mexico, and is the result of efforts of the BIDOO Collective, an organization that provides incentives to rural farmers and beekeepers to conserve natural habitats.

Oaxaca state, Mexico
Oaxaca (pronounced waˈhaka), a state in Mexico comprised of seven regions, is located in the south of Mexico. As a state it was established in 1824 and currently has a population of about 4 million. Its capital is Oaxaca City and it is home to a third of Mexico’s indigenous people who are from a number of different indigenous groups, with the Zapotecs and Mixtecs accounting for about 50%. 

It is an area rich in history, with evidence of human habitation dating back to 11,000 BC. The ancient city of Monte Alban (which flourished from 500 BC to 750 AD) and the religious center of Mitla, classified in 2010 as a UNESCO world heritage site, are both found in Oaxaca. 

Oaxaca mountains
Oaxaca has one of the most rugged terrains in Mexico with several mountain chains (Sierra Madre del Sur, Sierra Madre de Oaxaca and Sierra Atravesada) converging on each other, creating a series of narrow and not-so-narrow valleys between them. Many people live in isolated communities as a result. 

Climate varies with altitude. While it is within the tropical latitudes regions range from being hot and humid  to being temperate. It is thought to have the greatest bio-diversity in Mexico, with >8,000 species of flora and >4,500 species of fauna.

Its economy is based primarily on agriculture, even though only 9% of the land is suitable due to its mountainous terrain, mining and tourism. Principal crops include grains, cocoa, peanuts, mango, corn, sugar cane, coffee, sesame seed, and pineapple. 

Oaxaca rainforest
Beekeeping has been practiced in Mexico for thousands of years-and in Oaxaca for just as long. The ancient Mayans harvested wild honey from log nests and, later, wooden hives were used to collect it. It is used as a sweetener, an antibiotic and to make a fermented drink, “balche,” similar to mead. In fact, a surviving Maya book, The Madrid Codex, is all about bees and beekeeping, showing how important beekeeping was. Up until about 50 years ago, the stingless melliponine bee (Apidae melliponinaea native of the tropical forests of the Yucatan peninsula was the major honey maker. However when Africanized bees were introduced they soon took over and honey production is now principally from these bees. 

The jungles of Oaxaca are rich in floral diversity, including floral sources from mango, lime, lemon, avocado, coffee, sesame, almond, orchid, and wild fennel, to name a few. These are reflected in the region’s honey. If you are interested in the the floral diversity of Oaxaca honey, Ramirez-Arriga et al., have made a study of it using pollen analysis to identify the sources of Oaxaca honey.

Raw Jungle honey, Oaxaca, Mexico

My honey, which is organic and free of any pesticides or antibiotics, is a mellow, brown/mustard opaque color. It has crystallized a bit since I got it and is on the thick side. The crystals give it an very interesting texture, more like a puree than a crunchy or grainy texture. The taste is really unusual. Sweet potato, pineapple and cooked plums come through, with a slightly minty menthol aftertaste. It also have a bit of a final kick with a clove flavor. This honey is too unusual and interesting to bake with. It might be best eaten it right out of the jar, with a mild, creamy cheese, or on thick, plain yogurt. If you have no plans to visit Oaxaca anytime soon, but want a taste of this, Follow the Honey sells it online.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Jamaican hibiscus & sorrel honey

Jamaican hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa (race ruber)), also known as “roselle” or “sorrel,” is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae) that is native from India to Malaysia but thought to have originated in West Africa. This genus is quite large (made up of hundreds of species), likes warm places (i.e. found in subtropical and tropical regions), is very sensitive to frost and is known for their showy flowers. Think Hawaiian hula dancer with a flower in her hair, and it will be an hibiscus- not Hibiscus sabdariffa- but a close relative. Hibiscus sabdariff ‘s flowers are a little smaller (3 to 4 inches in diameter) and the flowers are white to pale yellow- a little different compared to the red, Hawaiian hibiscus that comes to mind. The flowers are sometimes called “roselle.” They also have a robust, fleshy calyx (plural calyces- a collective term for sepals of a flower- the bits that enclose the flower, usually green but in the case of Hibiscus sabdariffa they are red ). The calyx has many culinary uses (see below). While China and Thailand are the largest producers of Hibiscus sabdariffa, it is grown commercially in Jamaica, where my hibiscus & sorrel honey comes from.

Hibiscus sabdariffa
There are many uses for different parts of Hibiscus sabdariffa. As a plant it is primarily cultivated for the production of base fiber (from the stem) which can be used as a substitute for jute in making burlap (this was news to me). The calyx is a source of red food coloring (very popular in this age of “natural” dyes), is eaten like a vegetable, and is used to make a syrup (i.e. sorrel syrup), sweet pickle, jelly or jam (that tastes like a tangy plum jam). Its green leaves are akin to a spicy spinach (particularly known in the Senegalese fish and rice dish “thieboudienne,” the Andhra dish “gongura pacchadi,” and the Philippines chicken stew “Tinola”). Of interest, there is a proverb in the southern part of Myanmar that translates as “Cooking roselle too long, taste is bitter, and staying in bachelor life too long, life is bitter.” So, be warned about overcooking it or staying single for too long.

In the Caribbean, a cold drink (“sorrel,” “roselle,” or “aqua de Jamaica” in Mexico, among other names), which was introduced by Akan slaves to the islands in the late 1600s, is made from the calyces. You boil them in water until the water turns red, add sugar and then serve it cold. Variations on the recipe add ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mint, lemon, lime, bay leaves and/or rum. In Jamaica sorrel, typically with rum, is a Christmas treat served with fruit cake or potato pudding.
Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces

You can also make a hot tea with the calyces. You may have seen an herbal hibiscus tea at the supermarket (e.g. Celestial Seasonings “Red Zinger” tea) Hibiscus sabdariffa is what gives it its red color and tangy flavor. If you combine the calyces with beer you get “Shandy Sorrel” a Caribbean treat. In 1904 Hibiscus sabdariffa seeds were planted in Miami with the hope that the crop of calyces would be a southern substitute for cranberry; jelly made from the calyces (called roselle jelly) is almost indistinguishable from cranberry sauce. It never really caught on.

You may have also seen dried Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces sold in bags at the health food store (a popular name is “Flor de Jamaica”- which is a misnomer as it is the calyces that are sold, not the flowers).  You can fill these with goat cheese and serve them on baguette slices for swanky garden parties, use them in to tea, jams, jellies, etc. or just eat them out of the bag.  

Apart from different parts of Hibiscus sabdariffa being good to eat, Hibiscus sabdariffa has some medicinal qualities; it is considered to be a mild diuretic and laxative. It has been assessed as an anti-hypertensive, but results were inconclusive. It is currently being assessed in cancer treatments. It has antioxidant properties, and is a good source of vitamin C, calcium, iron and magnesium.

As I’ve said, my honey comes from Jamaica. Beekeeping is a relatively recently established commercial activity in Jamaica. In 2008, a bee industry census showed that there were 1,200 farmers that kept bees (of which 137 are women) with 31,400 hives. These produced 166,500 gals of honey, 56,800 lbs. of bees wax, 48 oz. of Royal Jelly, 205 lbs. of pollen, 16 oz. of propolis, and 32 oz. of venom (a.k.a. apitoxin- the liquid that bees inject via their stinger that is medicinally used in treating arthritis). Common nectar sources were mango, ackee and logwood. Not surprisingly, I suppose, there is a Jamaican Apiculture Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries department. An import permit is needed to import bee products (i.e. honey and pollen).  This is all regulated under the Bee Control Act that states that no bees, honey or beekeepers’ stock can be brought within the limits of Jamaica without with the permission in writing of the chief plant protection officer. If anyone does they run the risk of the stock being seized and destroyed by customs.
Hibiscus & sorrel honey

My honey is harvested and packaged by Ivyees Honey. Ivy Lawson is the force being Ivyees Honey, which is head- quartered in Randolph, MA. She founded a honey operation in Jamaica (owns and manages her own hives) that produces a few varieties of organic honeys: “floral & ginger,” “logwood” and “hibiscus & sorrel.” The honey is packaged in Whitehouse, Westmoreland, Jamaica and then distributed in the US to specialty stores, mostly in New England. I got my Hibiscus and Sorrel honey at my local Whole Foods Supermarket.

My hibiscus & sorrel honey is a mellow caramel color. It is very (very) thin, and very hard to get on a toothpick. It is a perfect consistency to drizzle over yogurt or hot cereal.  It has a rich, slightly bitter, floral, spicy flavor (if it had a color it would be a rich, brown rum sort of color) with a refreshing subtle tangy menthol after taste. Very tasty! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

(Heavenly Organics) Neem Honey, Central India

Neem (Azadirachta indica), also known as Nimtree and Indian Lilac, is a drought  and heat resistant tree in the mahogany family (Meliacaea) that is native to tropical and semi-tropical regions. It grows in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran, among other places. It can become a large tree (heights up to 40 meters) and one of a few shade-giving trees that thrive in drought-prone areas (e.g. southern districts of India and Pakistan). As a result, it is commonly planted for shade along streets, around temples and in other public places in India. It was exported to other dry areas as a shade tree (e.g. Australia) and has become invasive in some non-native areas. As a result, it has sometimes been classified as a weed. In Australia, for instance, it is illegal to buy, sell or transport Neem plants or seeds, and its spread is actively being controlled.

Neem flowers
The Neem tree has white, fragrant flowers that produce an olive like fruit, which when ripe is half and inch to an inch long and about half an inch wide. The fruit skin is mostly bitter and fibrous, but each fruit contains 2-3 seeds that are the source of Neem oil.

One of the most important uses of neem is as a bio-pesticide. Neem seeds are ground into powder, soaked in water, and sprayed on crops. The neem spray acts as an anti-feedant (substance that adversely affects insects that eat it), insect repellent and egg-laying deterrent. It also suppresses the hatching of insect eggs. In 1962 it was successfully used to protect crops against migratory desert locusts. The anti-insect properties are also found in neem leaves. In India, neem leaves are dried and used as an insect repellent in cupboards and between the folds of clothes, or burnt to keep away mosquitoes.

Neem fruit

Neem has other uses as well. Neem oil has been used in cosmetics, soaps, balms and creams, and as a lubricant. Neem gum is used as a bulking agent in foods. In parts of India, Africa and the Middle East neem twigs (called datum) are used as toothbrushes: if the ends of the twig are chewed they turn into soft bristles that can then be used to clean teeth. Neem cake is used to fertilize crops and protect plant roots from nematodes and white ants. Neem bark is a source of tannin and yields a coarse fiber that is used to make rope.

You can also eat neem (the tender, new shoots and flowers), but it is bitter. Consuming or otherwise using neem leaf, bark and/or flowers is associated with many Hindu festivals. Furthermore, Siddha and Ayurvedic practitioners use neem products medicinally.  In fact, in Sanskrit the word for neem, “Arishtha” means “reliever of sickness.” And there is evidence that neem has medicinal uses. In 1993, a Neem Foundation was established to better understand how Neem might be used. Be aware, though, if consumed in large quantities, neem oil can be toxic.

Neem flowers are also a source of honey. My neem honey is packaged and distributed by Heavenly Organics. Heavenly Organics neem honey comes from the forests of northern and central India and parts of the Himalayan Mountains (e.g. Kashmir, Uttarakhand). It is “wild” honey collected by honey hunters who then sell it to Heavenly Organics. As a result the honey is chemical-free, organic, raw and unheated, maximizing its taste, and enzymatic, vitamin and mineral properties.

wild honey hive
Heavenly Organics is the brain child of Amit Hooda. In 2004, after Mr. Hooda completed his Master’s degree in computer science from the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, he collaborated with his father and Edward Malloy to create a worker-owned cooperative to foster long-term partnerships that mutually benefit both farmers and consumers. Heavenly Organics is part of the authentic fair trade movement. Mr. Hooda's father, Dr. Ishwar Singh Hooda, is an agronomist and former teacher at Haryana Agriculture University in India. Dr. Hooda has promoted sustainable organic farming methods and sustainable, bee-friendly methods of harvesting wild honey, in rural communities in India for over 35 years. Edward Malloy, the mayor of Fairfield, Iowa, is the US Director of the operation. Currently the cooperative supports nearly 600 family farmers (hoping to expand to 5,000) and produces honey, cane sugar and a variety of different kinds of chocolate honey patties.

Heavenly Organics neem honey
My neem honey has already crystallized in fairly large crystals. It has a caramel, toffee, maple syrup smell about it, and is a warm, toffee color. It has a rich, subtly spicy taste (gingerbread spicy) with hints of caramel, maple syrup and floral tones, and has a slight bitter, smoky after taste. It is a warm, robust tasting honey and would be good on buttered toast, in black tea, baked goods or hot cereal. I got mine at my local Whole Foods supermarket. The Heavenly Organics website has a store locator to help you find it locally as well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Rhododendron honey (mad honey), Apicoltura Cazzola, Altedo, Italy

I'd heard about rhododendron honey ("mad honey") from others but never came across any- so I started looking for it actively and finally found some from Italy online.

Why is it so special? In a word, grayanotoxin (i.e. grayanotazane-3,5,6,10,14,16-hexol 14-acetate, named after American botanist Asa Grey). It is a chemical found in rhododendron nectar and pollen that is a neurotoxin, and makes its way into the honey. If ingested, even in small quantities (e.g. less than a teaspoon), it can cause "honey intoxication"- mostly light-headedness. In larger quantities it causes perspiration, hallucinations, and vomiting, among other unpleasant things. If you ingest a bit more it causes severe and progressive muscle weakness and paralysis, breathing difficulties and affects the beating of your heart, which can lead to death. Luckily it is rarely fatal in humans; after a day or two most people recover. This is not always the case for animals though; rhododendron leaves also contain grayanotoxin and (mostly) cattle/sheep/goats (who are not long for this world) like to eat them. So if you have any rhododendron bushes (or azaleas, for that matter- same family) and you have a pet that is attracted to eating their leaves, keep them away.

Honey intoxication - and its use as a weapon- has been well documented. Pliny wrote of how the honey was used against the armies of Xenophon (one of Socrates' students) in 401 BCE. There is also an account of how Roman troops (the army of Pompey the Great) were poisoned by toxic honey - from honeycombs deliberately placed along their route- on their way to fight at Heptakometes in Turkey. I guess the Romans didn't think it suspicious that honeycombs just showed up on their route? Does "too good to be true" come to mind? In the end they were delirious, nauseous and thoroughly sick, and didn't put up much of a fight. If you want to see what a mild intoxication looks like, here is a brief documentary by Raphael Treza "Hallucinogen Honey Hunters" involving a group of men harvesting wild rhododendron honey in Nepal:

Be aware that the toxicity of rhododendron honey varies depending on the amount and type of rhododendron nectar in the final honey; rhododendron varieties differ (significantly) in the quantity of grayanotoxins in their leaves, pollen and nectar. In fact some rhododendrons don't produce any grayanotoxins at all. You may be relieved to know that commonly gardened rhododendrons in North America generally have only small amounts of toxin- not enough to render honey super toxic, but if you eat enough of their leaves you may still be quite sick. In fact, one account I read went so far as to caution against using rhododendron twigs to roast marshmallows. So beware!

Rhododendron forest in Ireland
"Pure" toxic rhododendron honey requires large concentrations of rhododendrons that contain grayanotoxins. In addition, the bee population must be adapted to harvest the toxic nectar and pollen without it killing the hive. This all adds up to only a few places that are well known for producing toxic rhododendron honey: the Black Sea region of Turkey (where the honey is known as deli bal), parts of Nepal and the Reunion Island. Not surprisingly, Rhododendron ponticum, a common wild shrub from the Black Sea region, is the most toxic rhododendron (followed by Rhododendron luteum- another resident of Asia Minor).

While I looked for Black Sea rhododendron honey online, I didn't find any. Mine comes from Italy, from the Cazzola Apiary. Given its origins, I suspect it may not be as toxic as Black Sea rhododendron honey, but even so, there are no warning labels or even information about potential toxicity. This brings to mind a report I read that stated that most European cases of honey toxicity are in tourists who bring back honey souvenirs (unlabeled with regard to toxicity) from Turkey.

Altedo, Italy- near Bologna
The Cazzola apiary, where my honey is from, is a family affair that started when two brothers bought a few hives to pollinate local orchards. They now have over 200 hives and produce a variety of single source honeys by "nomadically following blooms." They are located in Altedo, a small town in the Po Valley, which is 7 km from Malabergo and 23 km from Bologna. It is a fertile agricultural area, particularly known for its green asparagus (they have a yearly asparagus festival in Altedo in May). I didn't see any hint of large swaths of rhododendrons in the area, though. I did see that other apiarists harvested rhododendron honey in the Italian Alps, so I suspect that the nomadic hives of the Cazzola apiary may travel north now and again.

rhododendron honey
The rhododendron honey I have is a mellow, mustard brown color and it has already crystallized. It has a heady smell of summer honey, floral with a hint of the bitterness of chestnut honey. The crystals are on the large side and melt into a slightly sweet honey with a slight bitter taste, similar to chestnut honey, intermingled with herbal and floral tones- and then it has an aftertaste not unlike watermelon. The watermelon is a bit weird, but definitely there. And yes, even after a small taste from a toothpick swirl, I'm light headed, in the span of less than 5 minutes. It feels like being in the car too long- I'm a little woozy and it is hard to concentrate. It is not a great feeling. I may be a light weight, but if this is what a tiny taste can do, I'm not inclined to have more, even though, taste-wise, it is an interesting and unusual honey!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Blackberry honey, The Bee Folks, Mount Airy, MD

The blackberry honey that I have comes from the Bee Folks (MountAiry, MD) and was harvested in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, which isn’t surprising since the bulk of blackberry production in the U.S. happens in Oregon, Washington and California.

Marion Blackberry 
As you may know, blackberries are (yummy) edible fruit produced by a number of species in the Rubus genus, and hybrids between the Rubus and Ideaobatus subgenera. While the taxonomy of blackberries might seem straight forward, it is anything but, particularly at the species level. As far as I can tell this confusion stems from the fact that blackberries can reproduce both sexually (via hybridization of two unrelated plants) and asexually (a.k.a. apomixis). This has led to a situation where the original species that existed centuries ago have intercrossed so much that it is unclear where species lines can be drawn. As a consequence some blackberry species are grouped together into ‘species aggregates.’ So a specific species (say Rubus plicatus) may also be part of a species aggregate and can be referred to by the aggregate name (in this case Rubus fruticosus), resulting in the same plant having two different names. It may be easier just to know that all blackberries are in the Rubus genus, and that there are estimated to be over 375 species.

Black Raspberry
One thing that has always puzzled me is the difference between raspberries and blackberries. I know that traditionally one is red and the other is black, and that the shapes of the fruit are a little different, etc. but there are varieties of raspberries that look a lot like blackberries (e.g. black raspberries). So what is the difference?  You may be surprised to know (I was) that it has to do with the stem (called a torus). If you pick the fruit and the torus stays with the fruit, it is a blackberry. If the stem stays on the plant, leaving a hollow core in the fruit, it is a raspberry. Interesting, no?

Other interesting facts I learned: there are three types of blackberry plants: erect, trailing vines and semi-erect; a “thicket” of blackberry (or raspberry) canes is called a bramble (I actually knew this already); and blackberries and raspberries are called collectively “caneberries.” With all this use of “berries” you’d think that blackberries and raspberries are berries, but in fact, botanically, they are not. They are considered an “aggregate fruit composed of small drupelets.” Although “blackdrupelets” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it? And while you may think that caneberry canes have ‘thorns’- those hard structures with sharp ends- they are, in fact, ‘prickles.’ I learned that thorns are derived from shoots (i.e. they arise from a bud and as a result often have a very predictable pattern and are connected to vascular bundles inside), and prickles are derived from the epidermis and as a result can be found anywhere on the plant, are not connected to vascular bundles and can be more easily removed. And in case you are wondering, there is a third category of “hard structures with sharp ends”:  ‘spines’ that are derived from leaves.  Of note, there are blackberry ‘prickle-free’ cultivars with the best known being “Triple Crown.”

Types of Blackberry Plants
Blackberries are native to Europe, northwestern Africa, temperate western and central Asia, and North and South America, and they are relatively hardy. They don’t need specific soil conditions and can tolerate cold. They thrive in ditches, wastelands and vacant lots, but they do best in temperate climes where there is a winter chilling to stimulate flower buds. And lots of things eat blackberry leaves – caterpillars, deer- so they are not without their enemies. Other animals eat their fruit- fox, badgers and small birds- which helps disseminate seeds. Blackberries have been introduced and thrive in non-native areas (e.g. Australia, Chile, New Zealand) where they are considered to be an invasive species.
Schematic Showing Primacanes and Floricanes
Blackberries are perennials but it usually takes two years for a cane to produce fruit. In the first year the new stem (called a “primocane”) grows to its full length but does not produce flowers. Then in the second year, the stem doesn’t grow anymore but its lateral buds produce flowering laterals (called a “floricane”).  Floricanes die after they have fruited and new canes replace them, growing from the roots of old canes. Raspberries, in contrast, only take one year with the growth and flowering occurring in the same year. While you might think this is yet another difference between blackberries and raspberries, be aware that there are exceptions (i.e. there are blackberry cultivars that produce fruit in the first year that are called “everbearing”). Blackberry plants can produce fruit for 10-20 years.

Flowers (white or pink) are produced in late spring/early summer, and fruit are produced post pollination, so blackberries are reliant on pollinators (like bees). Conditions that affect pollination (weather, heat, etc.) affect the quantity and quality of fruit. The fruit, which starts out red and then ripens to black (due to their containing anthocyanins), is a good source of fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K. Of interest, the seeds- which may not be a favorite with consumers- are high in omega-3 and -6 fats, protein, and fiber.

Characteristics of Different Cultivars (
Globally Mexico is the leading producer of blackberries- predominantly now from the cultivar Tupy (or Tupi, a Brazilian cultivar developed in the 1990s) but originally from the cultivar “Brazos” (a cultivar develop in Texas in 1959). In the U.S., Oregon is the leading commercial producer, with about 60% of the crop being the Marion cultivar (an industry standard cultivar that was developed in 1956 and named after Marion county). Of interest, the U.S. is a leader in developing all sorts of blackberry cultivars (now generally through work done by the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in their breeding program in Corvallis, Oregon, but originally pioneered by Luther Burbank, father of the “Phenomenal” and “White” cultivars). The U.S. has a long tradition of being in the blackberry cultivar business. In 1880 Judge Logan introduced the Loganberry, a blackberry-raspberry cultivar that is grouped with blackberries, in California. And George Darrow and Walter Knott (of Knott’s Berry Farm in California) developed the Boysenberry, a prickle-free blackberry-raspberry hybrid cultivar. The Boysenberry was named after Rudolf Boysen, the owner of the farm where the original cultivars came from. In 1905 the Youngberry was developed in Louisiana from crossing Luther Burbank, Phenomenal Berry, and Austin-Mayes Dewberry cultivars. 

Fruit Size Differences: L to R Navaho, Apache, Kiowa
The names of blackberry cultivars read like either a list of synonyms for “black” (e.g. “Black Diamond,” “Black Pearl,” “Nightfall,” and “Obsidian”), Native American tribes (e.g. “Cherokee”, “Choctaw”, “Navaho,”  “Chicasaw,”and ”Apache”), people who were associated with the cultivar (e.g. “Austin-Mayes,”and “Boysenberry”), or qualities of the new cultivar (e.g. “Thornless”, “Ouchita” (very thorny), and “Illini Hardy” (produced at the University of Illinois and cold hardy)). I’m assuming the developer of the cultivar has naming rights, which must be a nice perk after all the work it takes to make it happen.

Blackberry cultivars differ regarding zone hardiness, growth pattern (i.e. erect, semi-erect and trailing), thorn status, fruit size, shape, color, flavor and yield, cane length, and fruit time of ripening.  I’m amazed at the variety. If you are considering growing blackberries it is worth researching all the cultivars that are available! And next time I buy blackberries I’ll pay attention to where they were grown and what cultivar produced them.

Blackberry Honey
The blackberry honey I have is thick and a mellow burnt orange color with a subtle berry aroma. It has classic honey sweetness- but not overly sweet- with undertones of ripe blackberries, especially in the after taste. It brings to mind lazy, hot summer days with the sun beating down and the sound of bees going from flower to flower. This may be as close as you can get to putting summer in a jar. This honey would be very tasty in tea, in hot cereal, on hot buttered toast, or right out of the jar. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Brazilian Pepper honey, The Bee Folk, Mount Airy, MD

The Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia), also known as Hawaiian Christmas Berry, Florida Holly, Rose Pepper, and Broadleaved Pepper, is a sprawling shrub or small tree in the sumac family, Anacardiaceae, which also includes poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac and poisonwood. As a member of the Schinus genus it is known as a “pepper tree,” although it is not a true pepper. Even so, Schinus molle or the Peruvian Pepper, a close relative of the Brazilian Pepper, is the source of the pink peppercorns that you sometimes see in gourmet pepper mills. The dried berries add a pepper-like taste to food. The Brazilian Pepper is also known as “Hawaiian Christmas Berry” or “Florida Holly” because its red berries mature in December/ January and are sometimes used as Christmas decorations. The “Brazilian” part of its names comes from the fact that it is native to subtropical and tropical South America (i.e. southeastern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay).

Brazilian Pepper berries
The Brazilian Pepper is a dioecious species (i.e. there are both male and female flowers that occur on separate male and female trees) with male flowers lasting one day and female flowers lasting up to a week. Both flower types look the same and are found in abundant clusters. These eventually produce small, red, spherical berries. The shrub/small tree reaches a height of 3-10 meters and has aromatic leaves which when crushed give off a peppery or turpentine-like smell. It is quite a lovely plant to look at and is very popular with bees.

Sometime in the 1840s or 50s the Brazilian Pepper was introduced into the southern U.S. states from South America as an ornamental shrub. The tree adapted very well, actually too well. It is ridiculously hardy and is able to thrive in both dry and wet conditions, can tolerate some salinity and flooding, and, when mature, is also fire-resistant. It is the cockroach of trees- although maybe more attractive. Did I mention that it exudes chemicals in its leaves, flowers and fruit to irritate competing species? It is nearly indestructible and, unfortunately, very invasive. Cold seems to be the only thing that limits it: it is only really happy in hardiness zones 10-12. Interestingly, for about the first 80 years that it was in Florida, it was “controlled” but then in the mid-1920s a horticulture hobbyist gave hundreds of seedlings to friends who planted them in their yards and along city streets. By 1969 it was considered an invasive species of the worst kind, and is now classified as a Category I invasive exotic plant, meaning that it is displacing native species and it should be eradicated whenever possible. It has since taken over large (and ever expanding) areas of Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, Louisiana and California with serious negative impacts on biodiversity. It is causing problems in other places as well: Australia, the Bahamas, and Bermuda, to name a few. In fact, it is such a big problem that the sale, transport or planting of it or its seed is legally prohibited in Florida and Texas (as well as other countries) and the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG) has listed it among the top 100 worst global invasive organisms.
Where the Brazilian Pepper is found in Florida

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to eradicate. This is because if it is cut down it produces basal shoots that produce new trees, it produces lots and lots of seeds that birds (especially migrating robins), mammals (raccoon and possum) and insects (mostly ants) disperse widely, and its seedling survival rate is very high. Mechanical harvesting (down to the roots) and hand-application of herbicides is what is usually needed to get rid of it, with additional follow up treatments if sprouts appear.  Unfortunately, this is all very expensive and difficult to do on a large scale.

Apart from being invasive and having negative impacts on the environment, it also has human health impacts. Its sap can cause skin reactions similar to poison ivy, and eating the berries, which can have a paralyzing effect on some birds, can cause throat irritation, vomiting and gastro-intestinal problems. So, if you grind those lovely pink peppercorns, please be cautious, they are considered to be toxic in large quantities! The Brazilian Pepper is also the source of airborne irritants (especially when in bloom), provoking allergic reactions (e.g. asthma and other respiratory problems) in some. Susceptible people exposed to the tree, even just sitting in its shade, may develop an itching skin rash, face swelling, respiratory problems and other allergy symptoms. Burning the plant makes this worse and being around the smoke (which is described as “noxious”) is like being “maced.” Given how potent it is, it probably is no surprise that the Brazilian Pepper’s leaves, bark, berries, seeds and resin have been used medicinally by indigenous people throughout the tropics for a very long time.

After reading about it, the Brazilian Pepper seems to have only two redeeming qualities: it is an attractive ornamental plant (if you are not allergic to it) and it produces honey. In fact, it is a very efficient producer of nectar (which is by some accounts an unusual fluorescent yellow) and subsequently produces a LOT of honey: approximately 6-8 million pounds in Florida each year. Well, it has one other redeeming quality: given that it typically blooms in late summer into fall (August to November) it is also an important source of nectar for winter honeybee colony maintenance. But that is about it. Everything else about it is pretty bad, at least in areas where it was introduced and is negatively impacting the environment. 

Brazilian Pepper honey
I got my jar of Brazilian Pepper honey online from the Bee Folk. I’m not exactly sure where it originated but my guess is probably Florida since they have the biggest problem with Brazilian Pepper and in the U.S. they produce a lot of its honey. 

According to my readings, Brazilian Pepper honey is by most accounts, too bitter, too peppery, too something else to be table grade, so I think one of the reasons I hadn’t heard of it is that most of it may be sold for commercial use rather than table use. In fact, I’ve read varying accounts of what it tastes like, from sweet potatoes to pepper. This may be partly due to differences in soil and weather conditions, but also due to the honey not being purely from Brazilian Pepper flowers; many apiarists who harvest Brazilian Pepper honey note that while the majority of the honey’s floral source is Brazilian Pepper, other floral sources are involved, and these flavors interact to produce the final flavor. 

I’ve had my honey for a while and it has crystallized, with fairly large granules. It is a mellow orange/brown color. As for flavor, it is not too sweet and has a sweet potato flavor with an overlay of molasses, and then a final, subtle, pepper kick, but definitely more sweet potato than pepper. I didn't find it bitter at all. I'm not sure why it wouldn't be considered for table use, it is quite nice! I think it would be great in baking- and pretty good right out of the jar. 

If you'd like to try some for yourself, you can order some online from the lovely Bee Folk website.