Tamarisk honey: a dark secret

Tamarisk, also known as saltcedar, is one of those plants beloved by beekeepers and reviled by nearly everyone else. Governments and conservation groups spend untold dollars digging, pulling, and poisoning it, as well as searching for predators and diseases that might wipe it out. But still it persists and I doubt we will ever be rid of it.

Like many invasive species, tamarisk was originally brought to this country as an ornamental plant. A deciduous shrub or small tree, it grows from 5 to 30 feet tall, and can form dense monotypic thickets. The pale pink to white flowers bloom from spring until fall, thereby adding color to a landscape that may seem barren in the dry depths of summer.

The genus Tamarix belongs to the family Tamaricaceae. The entire family, which consists of several genera, is native to Eurasia and Africa. The problematic species of Tamarix have several characteristics that have allowed them to spread along the drainages of the Colorado River, the Rio Grande, and into areas of the Grand Canyon. Since its introduction in about 1805, the genus Tarmarix has invaded roughly two million acres in the U.S.

The deep roots of the tamarisk tap into water tables far below the surface, allowing the plant to thrive in dry desert climates. Conversely, these same roots anchor the plant so firmly it can withstand flooding of up to 70 days. And as the nickname “saltcedar” suggests, it is extremely tolerant to salty soils—a characteristic that allows it to out-compete native species such as cottonwood and willow, especially along stream banks. In addition, tamarisks absorb large amounts of water, diverting moisture from the more shallow-rooted natives.

But to beekeepers the tamarisk is a miracle, providing vast acreages of forage during times when nothing else is available. The small flowers are reliant on insect pollinators and so produce copious nectar and pollen to attract them. In the past tamarisk honey was considered primarily “bee feed”—honey to be left on the hive for overwintering the colonies. But the plight of honey bees across the globe has rekindled a curiosity in varietal honeys—including tamarisk.

Several weeks ago I decided I had to try a sample, especially after I saw pictures and read the description. Being a fan of dark honeys—the darker, the better—I knew I would like it. I was not disappointed. I purchased the honey from Grandpa’s Gourmet Honey in Alamosa, Colorado and it arrived looking as dark and stormy as buckwheat honey and smelling nearly the same.

The tasting notes that arrived with the bottle promised “aromas of dark beer, molasses, soy sauce, hickory and pine.” What I tasted was slightly different—malt and molasses topped with overtones of horehound and citrus—and not excessively sweet. It had a lingering, smoky, slightly bitter aftertaste—not unpleasant but different from other honeys I’ve sampled.

Grandpa’s Gourmet suggests pairing it with a strong cheese, such as blue, and I’m sure that will be perfect. In the meantime I’m still at the eat-it-with-a spoon phase and savoring every moment. And after I get past the tamarisk-and-cheese phase, I will move on to this beguiling recipe I found on the Backyard Bee Hive Blog: Tamarisk Honey Crème Brûlée. Sounds like yum.

Rusty

HoneyBeeSuite.com

Tamarisk in bloom at Grapevine, Arizona. Flickr photo by cogdogblog.
Tamarisk in bloom at Grapevine, Arizona. Flickr photo by cogdogblog.

Comments

Hello_Kitty_
Reply

Thanks for the Shout Out, Rusty! On the other end of the spectrum, did you buy grampa’s White Honey? O.M.G.

Rusty
Reply

No, I didn’t, but I was curious. With that recommendation, I’ll give it a try!

Grant Grigorian
Reply

I love it! Thanks for the awesome write up!

We’re scrambling trying to find locations where Tamarisk hasn’t yet been exterminated – but it’s getting harder and harder every year.

Brent
Reply

AWESOME ARTICLE, Rusty!!! I get out of breath trying to relay what you said to patrons. The sad thing is, the various agencies have spent millions fighting tamarisk and in recent years they have done such brilliant things as release a beetle along the U.S. Mexico border to kill tamarisk . . . without Mexico’s permission. Mexico likes the tamarisk in the area as it provides vital shade for livestock. In addition they may be hurting other species.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/23/us/23beetle.html

The beetle has devastated the places that we were making our tamarisk honey (for better or for worse). This spring I will chase down one last large stand of tamarisk in central Texas, in hopes of getting what may be the last crop for some time. I have no doubt that the invasive tree will make a triumphant comeback, but probably not for several years. Until then cherish your tamarisk honey.

Brent (beekeeper Grampas Gourmet Honey)

P.S. It is known as salt cedar because it actually creates salt (another way it drives out its neighbors). In fact, due to the many drought years along the Colorado river near Yuma, the soil has become so salinated that the tamarisk itself is starting to die from its own salt.

Mary
Reply

I recently removed a beehive from under a shed, and a good part of the honey was so dark, it was almost black. Smelled like molasses, tasted like molasses, with smoky and citrus afternotes. Now I know what it is!! Your description is exactly what I got.

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