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 bal  (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”.