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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 http://www.leatherwoodhoney.com.au/ 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 http://www.leatherwoodhoney.com.au/ also lists distributors to locate it in other places.
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