It is easy to spice up your life.
A simple walk through a wetland or along a stream or marsh may just do the trick. Breathe deeply and enjoy the fragrant, spicy scent of swamp azalea. Blooming swamp azaleas provide an awakening for your nose, but not a taste for your tongue.
The luscious aroma of this plant should not lead to a tasting. In fact, a nibble would cause great distress — gastrointestinal distress. Just a little bit could hurt a lot, as eating any part of the plant can cause heart problems, vomiting and dizziness.
Leo Tolstoy saw the contradiction of this plant which is in the genus rhododendron, when he exclaimed, “The Rhodora. It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”
Even honey made from bees foraging on swamp azalea is a no-no. It doesn’t make sense to me or anyone else to adulterate one of nature’s most perfect foods. Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder also wondered why nature would allow the making of poisonous honey, “What, in fact can have been her motive except to render mankind a little more cautious and somewhat less greedy?”
Certainly food for thought, but not for humans, swamp azaleas are a deciduous variety of rhododendron. This plant is alternately called swamp honeysuckle, due to its tubular white (or sometimes pink) flowers, though it is no relation to honeysuckle vine and, as stated, would make for an unsavory snack. Its scientific name, Rhododendron viscosin, alludes to its sticky flowers, which also encourage the other alias, clammy azalea.
These flowers are good to have around in the woods and in your yard or garden. Since swamp azalea is a native plant, it is well acclimated to our climate and thus is no new kid on the block. In fact, it has been appreciated since the first colonists arrived in this country.
Others also came around to appreciating the azaleas, notwithstanding their toxicity. American poet Dora Read Goodale spoke eloquently:
And in the woods a fragrance rare
Of wild azaleas fills the air,
And richly tangled overhead
We see their blossoms sweet and red.
Though perhaps, Ralph Waldo Emerson should have the last word on this flower, which certainly added flavor to the language of some first-rate poets, philosophers and fellow lovers of spicy swamp azaleas:
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.