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Friday, October 13, 2017

Tallow Tree Honey, Walker Honey Farm, Central Texas

On a recent visit from friends from Texas I got some Texas Tallow Tree honey (thanks Robert and Monique!). Tallow Tree (Triadica sebifera) is also known as: Chinese tallow, Florida aspen, chicken tree, popcorn tree and candleberry tree.  The “tallow” and “candle” names refer to the fact that the waxy coatings of the seeds can be used for candle and soap making. In fact, “sebifera” means “wax-bearing.” “Popcorn” describes the appearance of its seeds (see photo below showing the popcorn like seeds). “Chicken” refers to the fact that chickens like to eat the seeds. Furthermore, the leaves are similar in shape to the aspen, hence “Florida aspen.” The tree is native to China and Japan, hence the name “Chinese” tallow. The Tallow tree has been introduced into a number of countries. In the US it was introduced into South Carolina in 1776 by the French botanist Francois Michaux, and can now be found from North Carolina to California, mostly in warmer, southern states (see map below). 

Tallow Tree with "popcorn" seeds

Tallow tree is an attractive shade tree with waxy, green, heart-shaped leaves that exhibit beautiful fall colors that rival maples in their yellows, oranges and scarlets (see photo below). It can grow to 60 feet in height and 30 feet in width and live to be 100 years old. It is the definition of hardy. It does well in a range of soil and light conditions. It likes warm temperatures but can withstand light frosts. It can also tolerate flooding, even saltwater flooding.

It is monoecious, producing male and female flowers on the same plant, and has an unusual flowering strategy, called dichogamy, that involves different flowering times and requires having at least two sub-populations. Dichogamy contributes to having a high genetic diversity within the same stand. The yellow or white, very sweet smelling, flowers occur within an inflorescence spike of up to 20 cm long (April-June). The flowers produce capsules that change from green to black (September-October). The capsule walls then fall away to expose white wax-covered seeds. These seeds stay on the tree for several weeks.

Tallow Tree with yellow flowers

Apart from its use as an ornamental tree, it has many other uses. The waxy, outer covering of seeds contains a solid fat known as Chinese vegetable tallow and the kernels produce stillingia oil. Candles and soap can be  made from the tallow. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture introduced Tallow trees into some Gulf Coast states in the 1970s to establish a local soap making industry. Its kernel oil, which is a potential substitute for petroleum, is also used in machine oils and in making varnishes and paints. In addition a black dye can be made from its leaves, and its wood is suitable for furniture making and carving; its wood has been used to make blocks in Chinese printing. More recently the tree is thought to be a promising source of woody biomass that can be used for direct burning, or conversion to charcoal, ethanol or methanol.

Map depicting Tallow Trees range
(blue, green and pink- with pink showing areas of noxious growth)
While attractive and seemingly useful, it is also an extremely dangerous invasive species in the United States. It is listed by the Texas Department of Agriculture as one of the 24 most invasive plants and by the Nature Conservancy as one of “America’s Least Wanted- the Dirty Dozen.” It causes large-scale ecosystem modification by replacing native vegetation and by negatively altering soil conditions (related to the high level of tannins in its leaf litter). It has the potential to invade marshes, changing them from herbaceous to woody plant communities. In Texas it has produced large-scale conversion of upper coastal prairie to woodland, and is credited with the near extinction of the Attwater prairie chicken and a decline in grassland bird species due to loss of their habitat (the irony of chickens liking to eat the Tallow tree seeds is not lost on me). It has done so well that in Houston it makes up 23% of all trees, out-competing native vegetation and creating a monoculture in some areas. Not surprisingly, in Texas it is illegal to sell, distribute or import it.

Tallow Tree showing fall colors and seeds
The Tallow’s success is attributed to its high growth rate, high reproductive ability, and lack of herbaceous and insect predators or pathogenic organisms. Its leaves and sap are toxic keeping away most things that might harm it. Just touching it can cause dermatitis. As invasive plants go, it is in a class of its own with an incredible capacity to reproduce. A single tree can annually produce 100,000 seeds and seeds can remain dormant in soil for several years before sprouting. For a mature stand, this translates into upwards of 4,500 kilograms of seeds per hectare per year (yes, someone measured this)! Apart from seeds, it can also spread via root sprouts and it has a short generation time, meaning cut trees quickly regrow.  Mechanical removal is only effective for small specimens. Tree stumps can re-sprout and root fragments can develop shoots. This all means that the Tallow tree spreads and takes hold quickly, and is a nightmare to get rid of. Only certain herbicides and serious fire seems to be able do the job. One Cajun is quoted as saying “You don’t kill Tallows, you just make them mad.” It probably speaks volumes that most of the information I found on the Tallow tree was about ways that have been tried, unsuccessfully, to kill it. In Florida and Louisiana it is classified as a noxious weed, which given the circumstances seems like an understatement. The take home message: don’t buy, plant or otherwise spread this tree.

As for honey production, though, it is a winner (a silver lining?). While the leaves and sap contain toxins the nectar does not and bees love it, yielding impressive amounts of honey per colony. Apiarists in Texas and Louisiana claim colony yields ranging from 35 to 200 lbs, with averages of 100 lbs.

The honey I have is from Walker Honey Farm in Rogers, Central Texas, a family business that started in 1930 by G.C. Clint Walker and currently run by Janice and Clint Walker. They’ve expanded in the last 80+ years into quite an impressive operation, now offering 20+ varieties of honey, beeswax candles, mead, specialty foods, soaps and beauty products, among other things. 
Tallow Tree honey 
The Tallow Tree honey that is distributed by Walker Honey Farms is, not surprisingly, from the Houston area. It is a warm brown color that has an herbal, grassy smell. It has crystallized since I got it with large crystals (like rock candy) at the bottom of the jar and a layer of thin honey on top.  It has a rich, not to sweet and slightly bitter, herbal taste with a caramel, slight cinnamon, aftertaste.  It is unusual and tasty and would be very nice in baking, on warm buttered toast or in hot cereal.

This is not the first honey I've reviewed that is from an invasive species (see my review of Brazilian Pepper honey). Is honey production a silver lining to a serious problem? I struggle with how I feel about the production of a quality honey from a species that is destroying certain ecosystems. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts on the matter if you have a moment to leave a comment!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Leatherwood honey, Tasmania

Leatherwood honey is produced only in Tasmania and mostly from forests of leatherwood trees in the wilderness areas of western Tasmania. While Tasmania shares many plants and animals with Australia, it has unique species, like the leatherwood tree, that evolved separately after the land mass (Godwana) separated into Australia and Tasmania 10,000 years ago.

Tasmania showing the World Heritage Site
where leatherwood forests are
Tasmania is a southern Pacific island located 150 miles off the southern coast of the Australian mainland. Its forests are considered to be some of the oldest forests in the world and to recognize how unique this habitat is the forests of the western coast of Tasmania have been designated as a World Heritage Site.

Leatherwood (Eucryphia lucida, major source, and Eucryphia milliganii, minor source) is a tree (some call it a large shrub) that is endemic to the forests of western Tasmania, but also found in the northwest and through the southwest wilderness of Tasmania. It is an ancient tree that is thought to have originated 65 million years ago.  It is classified as “a cool temperature rainforest tree” and likes moist conditions. 

Leatherwood forest
The leatherwood typically grows to about 30 feet in height and produces beautiful masses of white, sweetly scented flowers- that look a little like simple roses - that have an abundance of nectar. The presence of leatherwood forests and the amount of nectar produced make leatherwood honey possible. Blossoms appear in spring and summer, and flowers mature into leathery capsules in the fall. The name “leatherwood” is thought to refer to this leathery capsule, as well as the toughness of the tree’s wood. Of interest, leatherwood trees under 75 years of age generally don’t flower and the most prolific flowerers are 100-200 years old.

Leatherwood tree blossoms
Leatherwood honey has been harvested for over 100 years in Tasmania. However, given where leatherwood trees grow -deep in the forests of Tasmania’s west coast- they are notoriously difficult to access. There are no roads. Of note: given their remote locale, leatherwood forests are thought to be entirely free from insecticides and artificial fertilizers. In the early days hardy beekeepers brought in their hives and took out honey by horse via rough bush tracks, camping in the forest for the duration of the honey collecting season. Unfortunately, these tracks were blocked when the Apt Wilderness Railway was built (1897) creating a crisis of sorts for leatherwood apiarists. One early apiarist family, the Stephens’ family, arrived at a creative solution. They petitioned the State Government to gain access to the area via the railway. The government agreed, and they then designed a special flatbed rail carriage to transport beekeepers’ trucks with their hives, allowing them access in and out of the area.

Honey truck railway flatbed
The Stephens family is one of many multi-generational beekeeping families. The Stephens’ Apiary (known as the R. Stephens Golden Bee Honey Factory) was established by R. (Robert) Stephens (1896-1977) in 1920.  It was the first commercial honey factory established in Tasmania. R. Stephens started as a weekender beekeeper with a few hives but gradually expanded to become an impressive commercial endeavor that now has 2,400 hives. For a full account of this family’s fascinating history in the honey making business visit their website The Stephens’ family business is now into its third generation, with Ian Stephens currently at the helm and his three sons, Ewan, Neal and Kenneth, by his side.

R. Stephens Golden Bee Honey Factory
In addition to being a beekeeping trailblazer, R. Stephens, the Stephens that commercialized their honey making business, was a gifted researcher. He developed ways to detect pollen varieties from honey samples, he studied the types and effects of floral enzymes and acids on  honey qualities, and bred queens to optimize bee attributes, including wing span. Larger wing spans allow bees to forage more widely and carry more nectar, resulting in higher honey yields. The Italian ligustica honey bee, a subspecies of the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), was introduced to Tasmania in 1884 and thrived in local conditions. R. Stephens imported Golden Italian queens, began a bee breeding program (1925) and is credited with improving the bee stock in Tasmania. He kept meticulous records and, incredibly, these records are still used today by the Stephens family in making decisions about bee matings and which hives to use. To recognize the historic significance of R. Stephens work and records, the Stephens’ Honey Factory is listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register, a first for any beekeeping operation. 

The R. Stephens Golden Bee Honey Factory currently produces clover, blackberry, and ground flora, and leatherwood honey, and their production accounts for about 35% of all Tasmanian honey – which is a HUGE amount and gives you an idea of how large their operation is. Their leatherwood honey production began in 1934 when they first placed hives in the Franklin River basin of the wilds of the west coast. Because of poor transportation infrastructure, however, they suspended honey collection there, and only resumed it in 1951. Now, about 70% of all the honey produced on Tasmania (about 1,000 tons per year) is leatherwood honey.

Leatherwood honey

My leatherwood honey is a creamy yellow and starting to crystallize from the bottom up. It has a heady, sweet, summer smell that reminds me a little of cut grass.  It is a relatively thick honey and spools easily on a toothpick. It has a creamy texture and a musky first taste with a very interesting citrus (grapefruit-y) after taste. Unusual and very tasty! Others have written that “it tastes like the wilderness.” This makes me, a city person, want to go out and experience firsthand the wild west coast of Tasmania. Thank you Stephens family and all the other apiarist families on Tasmania that harvest this incredible honey! 

You can buy leatherwood honey online- or, in the US at Whole Foods (where I got mine). The Stephens Family website also lists distributors to locate it in other places.