Monthly Archives: December 2011

Pretty, Common & Deadly Rhododendrons

I posted a little something on my Facebook page last night about honey made by bees from the flowers of Rhododendrons being potentially toxic. It created such a firestorm of “whoa”, I thought I’d share some more of my notes.

First, you need to know that there are more than 850 species in the Rhododendron genus, growing mostly in northern temperate regions. This includes Azaleas! The toxicity varies from species to species but all are considered highly hazardous … and all parts of the plant are a problem. They contain alkaloids and other compounds that can affect the heart, nervous system, and gastrointestinal system. Effects can range from contact dermatitis when picking flowers; to a burning sensation in the mouth; to a mild high; to nausea and/or diarrhea; to convulsions; and perhaps, paralysis & death.

Now, like most poisonous plants, sometimes a little is a good thing. Extracts of one particular species, Rhododendron tomentosum, are used in cough mixtures; also anti-rheumatic, emetic, diuretic and diaphoretic medicines. Other species are used by natives in northern Asia and North America for treating rheumatism and gout.

Probably even earlier than 400 BCE, teensy-tiny doses of honey made from Rhododendrons in the Black Sea region were consumed as an intoxicant and/or stimulant. Today, the honey made from Rhododendrons is known as deli balĀ  (mad honey) in Turkey and the northern Caucasus (miel fou in the West) … and sold commercially. Folks put a little into milk for a pick-me-up or a dollop of it in their alcoholic beverage to give it a little kick.

Although I can’t find specific scientific tests, one assumes that this honey isn’t made from 100% Rhododendron pollen. What happens when that is the case? In 401 BCE, Xenophon decided that his large army needed a rest and camped in a beautiful place surrounded by Rhododendrons in Colchis*, near the Black Sea. The only problem they encountered (they thought) was the numbers of swarming bees. The soldiers found the hives and raided them for the honey inside.

Shortly after consuming the honey, the soldiers “succumbed to a strange affliction” and began to act intoxicated, staggering & collapsing by the thousands. Most were totally incapacitated; some died. Those that did recover found they couldn’t stand for three or four days.

Nearly four centuries later, Pompey camped with his army in the same area with worse consequences. Everyone died. (Pompey apparently didn’t read Xenophon’s history.) Accounts of people getting sick and/or going crazy for a bit after eating honey harvested from Rhododendron-covered woods persist to this day.

We have Rhododendrons and Flame Azaleas growing in our woods. There are also honeybees around. I’ve mused on not only figuring out the Rhodies’ species but finding the bees’ hives (while attempting to avoid our local bear). If strong enough, that honey could be served to enemies … with a smile. Or better yet, in a honey jar spell designed for the opposite effect from normal. I’d still smile.


*Colchis was the homeland of the legendary sorceress, Medea. She didn’t have a reputation as a “good witch”.


Seasonal Meditation: Holiday Trees

I bought our holiday tree yesterday. (Yes, damn it, in this house it’s a HOLIDAY tree. We celebrate the Winter Solstice with it; a few days later, Christmas with the Christians in the family; and several days after that, Yule.) As I was putting it up in the living room, I got to thinking about the tree, its symbolism and its usages when it’s done being a decoration.

Although our tree is a Fraser Fir, many types of “Christmas trees” exist. I prefer a Scots Pine for its longer needles but I can’t easily get one of those in this part of the country so I get what I can. (Please do not call it a Scotch Pine in my presence. I’m prickly about my heritage. Scotch is an alcoholic beverage. I am not – most of the time ;).) However, whether you purchase a Fir, Pine or Spruce, they’re all members of the Pinaceae family and share so many qualities.

The first and most obvious things they share: they’re all evergreen and the majority of them are highly aromatic. When I was nine or ten, my family drove up to Lake Itasca (Minnesota, headwaters of the Mississippi) in my great-aunt’s Cadillac with air conditioning. It was my first time in a car during the summer where the windows were rolled up the entire trip. When we arrived at the heavily-forested park and opened the doors, the smell of pine smacked us in the face. It was heavenly.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) thought pine forests were good for people who didn’t recover well from long illnesses. He said the air in a wooded region was more beneficial than a sea voyage to Egypt. I can relate. That memory of strong pine smell has remained with me all these – ahem – decades. I find Pine aroma to be a refreshing one and love bringing that into the house this time of year. (No, I don’t use PineSolĀ® when cleaning. It smells artificial. Ick.)

History doesn’t really differentiate between Fir, Pine and Spruce, so I’ll have to more or less talk about the Pinaceae Family as a whole. (Cedar is also in this Family but is more readily identifiable.) I’ll use the word Pine. Substitute as you see fit. Some things you may not have known:

The Pine tree was dedicated to numerous Greek/Roman gods, including Artemis/Diana; Demeter/Ceres; and Dionysus/Bacchus. Pine cones were laid on monuments dedicated to the Egyptian god Osiris.

Pine is a symbol of immortality & victory and was used as a funeral emblem. (Did you know? Firs, in the proper environment, can live up to 800 years!)

Conversely, because of the phallic shape of most cones and the many seeds produced, it’s a symbol of fertility. In between birth & death, because they’re evergreen, they’re used in marriage as a symbol of constant love.

Even as late as 1930, it was used to ward off evil spirits: striking cattle with branches (Germany); or nailing branches to a stable door (England). In Bohemia, bullets were made of the seeds for hunting & these bullets were said to never miss their mark.

The “Christmas Tree” as we know it today didn’t truly come into being until the 19th century. Early Germanic tribes hung Pine branches around the house and burned lights to ward off evil spirits during Yuletide*. At some point they brought the whole tree inside and decorated it with candles – combining the two protective things into one. Mention of a “decorated” tree doesn’t happen until the 16th century, when the trees were hung with apples & wafers. Children would shake the tree to get the treats to fall. The first non-food decorations finally appeared in the early 17th century, when paper rosettes accompanied the apples, wafers and sweets.

On the medicinal side, Pine is an example of where the Ancients, many Native Americans and modern science agree. The leaves (needles), bark and resin are all used in steam inhalations to relieve respiratory infections. A decoction of the root is helpful for constipation or urinary tract infections. (You can also make a decoction of the bark or leaves if you don’t have a pine root around. They’re rather large.) The resin, when melted & applied, helps heal skin wounds; or you can inhale the fumes from burning resin to help a headache. Infuse the leaves or bark into an oil (or simply dilute the essential oil) and use as a rub for arthritis or minor muscle strain.

Magically, all members of the Pinaceae family are protective and purifying. They are also quite useful in healing spells; and because of the number of seeds, spells of increase (fertility, wealth, etc.) Pine resin is easy to obtain from cuts on fresh trees or in the case of Fraser Firs, by bursting “blisters” on the bark. Once dried, it makes a wonderful incense on its own or combined with other woodsy-smelling herbs. (In Pliny’s time, it was sold as “imitation incense”. LOL.)

I collected a little resin while putting the tree up (not many blisters on this one). Once our tree has served its holiday purpose, I will dry some needles and bark for future use. The rest of the tree will eventually grace our fireplace; the largest piece of the trunk will become next year’s Yule log – on December 28th*. I’m old-fashioned.

* Yuletide was once 13 days, beginning on the first full moon after the Winter Solstice. With the introduction of the Julian and subsequent Gregorian calendars (and some finagling by the Church), it now officially begins on December 25th, regardless of what date the Solstice or full moon falls on; although … a lot of people celebrate it on the Winter Solstice.

Further Reading:
Marcel de Cleene & Marie Claire LeJeune, Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe, Ghent, Belgium: Man & Culture Publishers, 2003
J. T. Garrett, The Cherokee Herbal, Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2003