"As Sweet As Tupelo Honey"
What is tupelo honey and why is it so special? In 1971, the Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison released a song and album named "Tupelo Honey." In the chorus of this song, he repeats:
"She's as sweet as tupelo honey. She's an angel of the first degree."
While the reclusive artist has never explained these lyrics, a big clue is found on the album cover, which has a picture of his wife riding on a white horse. Thus, many believe that this classic rock song is a tender ballad to his sweet spouse.
Why did Van Morrison compare his wife to tupelo honey? Did he ever try some of this magical honey? We don't know, but we can guess that if he did, it left a strong impression upon him. This is a common reaction. Some of the comments that we have received from customers about tupelo honey include:
"There may be better honey than your tupelo somewhere on this earth, but we've never found it."
"I tasted this honey from someone who thinks it is food from the gods and - Wow! He was right."
"I just got my first taste of tupelo honey. Now I know what all the buzz is about."
And this rather succinct review comes to us with surprising regularity:
"Best Honey I've ever had!"
Where Does Tupelo Honey Come From?
Every so often, customers ask us if tupelo honey comes from Tupelo, Mississippi. The short answer is "no." Tupelo honey comes from the tupelo tree. Specifically, the variety of tupelo tree knows as nyssa ogeche. Other names for this tree include "ogeeche lime", "river lime", "white tupelo", "white gum" and "bee tupelo." It is a type of fruit tree that produces a small, hard lime in late summer.
There is an old legend that the white tupelo tree is native to China, and not North America. This legend tells of a missionary who travelled to China and tasted tupelo honey. Falling in love with this special honey, she brought a bag a tupelo seeds back to America. She was travelling down the Apalachicola River by steamboat when a thief stole her handbag. Later, going through the bag's contents, he found the bag of seeds. Having no need for them, the thief tossed the bag into the river. The seeds were dispersed along the waterway, eventually taking root and growing into healthy trees. In time, these trees spread throughout the entire region.
It's a fun story, but likely untrue. In fact, the white gum tupelo tree is native to North America, and can be found in several areas of the Northwest Florida and Southern Georgia. The highest concentrations of tupelo trees anywhere in the world are found in two river systems - the Apalachicola and the Chipola rivers in the Florida Panhandle. But significant pockets of tupelo trees are also found along the Ogeechee and Suwannee rivers in Southern Georgia.
How Do You Get Honey From Trees?
Tupelo honey does not flow out of tupelo trees like maple sugar sap flows out of maple trees. Tupelo Honey comes from the nectar of flowers. Nectar producing flowers can be found on a wide range of plants, including trees, flowers, bushes and grasses. Other common trees that have nectar-producing blossoms include almond, basswood (linden), black locust (acacia), sourwood and various citrus trees (grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange and tangerine).
Tupelo trees like to have "wet feet." The name "tupelo" is derived from the Native Indian phrase "ito opliwa" which means "swamp tree." They grow best next to rivers and in low lying areas that flood regularly after heavy rains. But these wetlands cannot hold stagnant water. There must be at least some movement to the water to keep it fresh and flowing around the base of the trees. Tupelo trees have a moderate growth rate; a mature tree will average 40 feet in height and a span of 25 to 30 feet. It's a rather plain looking tree, and can be hard to spot except for the short time each spring when the trees are in bloom.
Each year, beginning in early April, the tupelo tree forms clusters of blossoms. The blossoms first appear as a small, green pea. Over the next few weeks, these small buds grow and swell into something that looks like a miniature cauliflower. Then, sometime between April 15 and April 30, these buds explode into a round ball with small, delicate spikes. The previous tupelo nectar is at the base of each little spike. In perfect weather, these fragile blossoms will last for just 3 short weeks. In most years, however, the season is cut short by heavy rains (which can knock the blossoms off the trees) or too much warm wind (which dries up the nectar).
It's worth mentioning that it takes a ton of blossoms to make a lot of honey. Depending on the flower, 1 to 2 million blossoms are needed to make 1 pound of tupelo honey. Each tupelo blossom yields just a few drops of nectar, and this nectar is 80% water. In their honey stomachs, bees add enzymes to this nectar which break down the complex sugars into simple sugars. After this modified nectar is then deposited into the honeycomb, bees will fan the honey until the moisture content is around 18%. The finished honey is then covered with a thin layer of beeswax. This is called "capped honey" and it is how the beekeeper knows that the honey is ready for harvesting.
How Do Beekeepers Harvest Tupelo Honey?
Beekeepers have been chasing tupelo honey for over 150 years. In the early days, beekeepers would build flat, wooden barges and tie the barges to the banks of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers. At the beginning of the tupelo season, they would bring their beehives down to a landing, and then use boats to ferry their beehives to the barges. After the tupelo bloom ended, the beekeepers would retrieve their beehives from the barges and then take them back to a "honey house" where the honey was extracted from the honeycomb.
Today, barges are rarely used. Most beekeepers have several different locations (called "bee yards") which are located on higher ground within a reasonable distance to areas of tupelo trees. These bee yards are very valuable pieces of property, and some have been used by the same family for generations. If they do not own the land, beekeepers will pay "yard rent" to the property owner, in either money, or honey, or both. Beekeepers will move their beehives onto these bee yards a few weeks before the trees start blooming. When the trees come into full bloom, beekeepers will remove existing honey frames from each beehive, and replace them with empty honey frames. This ensures that the tupelo nectar coming back to the beehive is not mixed in with previously made honey. Just as important, when the tupelo trees stop blooming, the beekeeper must return to each beehive and remove the honey frames before the bees move on to other nectar sources.
Even with careful timing and management, however, it is impossible to get 100% pure tupelo honey. There will always be something else in bloom at the same time, and we cannot control where the bees go. But the bees (like humans) clearly prefer tupelo nectar over other sources. So if there is a strong tupelo bloom, then the bees will focus their energy on it. In good years, the finished honey will range from 80% to 90% tupelo content. This is verified through pollen counting. For each different plant, pollen particles have a unique shape, which can be used just like a fingerprint for identification. A drop of honey is placed on a slide under a microscope, and all of the pollen particles within a designated grid are counted. Next, the tupelo pollen particles are identified and counted. If, for example, there are 100 pollen particles in the grid, and 82 of them are tupelo pollen, then we call that 82% tupelo. This is why it is imperative that you purchase raw, unfiltered honey, where none of the pollen has been removed from the product.
What Does Tupelo Honey Look and Taste Like?
Fresh tupelo honey is light amber in color and is often a bit cloudy with a slight greenish cast. This green tinting, which you can see when you hold the bottle up to the light, comes from the tupelo pollen in the honey.
It's hard to describe the taste of good tupelo honey. It has an amazing flavor profile. The honey has a bright fruity-floral burst that catches most people by surprise. As it then dissolves over the tongue, it has a pleasing and warm finish that lingers for a while. It is a bit like the flavor of Juicy Fruit gum, but completely natural and much more refined. When the flavor is gone, there is an immediate longing for another spoonful. After sampling tupelo honey for the first time, folks tend to break out into a wide smile and exclaim: "Wow! I never knew that honey could taste so good."
Because of this wonderful and brilliant flavor, tupelo honey has a near cult following among honey lovers. Some folks will simply not eat any other honey. When you combine this strong demand with a unpredictable annual supply, it means that prices for tupelo can be a bit higher than other honey varieties. But it is worth every penny!