Western Isles Wildflowers
Western Isles wildflowers is a collection of information about our Hebridean wildflowers including identification hints, traditional herbal uses and general plant lore.
Gaelic name: Rodaideandran
Rhododendron is a member of the heather family, the Ericeae, as such it loves acid soil so does well in the some parts of the Western Isles.
The Rhododendron is not a native plant of the Western Isles although it now grows extensively (and is rather a menace) throughout the Stornoway castle grounds, it also grows in smaller amounts in a few other Hebridean locations.
Generally the rhododendron is thought to be an originally native species to the UK which was wiped out during the glaciation period (about 14,000 years ago) when ice sheets scoured the land, this has been deduced from pollen samples.
These days the rhododendron is only considered a native species as far West from the UK as Spain. In the Himalayas the rhododendron forms the predominant vegetation as you walk down from the mountain tops into the valleys.
It is said that nothing can exist around the rhododendron, and attempts are made to eradicate it, yet in Norfolk the RSPB allows it to form dense undergrowth, which makes safe nesting areas for birds.
In 1950 the nectar produced by the flowers of some of the more unusual species of rhododendron growing in Colonsay contained toxins which were killing bees very quickly.
The species of rhododendron currently widely growing in the castle grounds of Stornoway Rhododendron ponticum contains toxins which are not poisonous to bees in the concentrations at which they are found in the flowers, however when they end up in honey, they can cause very severe allergic reactions (even death) in people who ingest too much of it.
In ancient times of war "toxic honey" also called "mad honey" including rhododendron nectar this was even used as a poisonous bait against armies invading Persia, a successfully ploy on more than one occasion.
I asked local horticultural Donald Hope of www.the-poly-croft.co.uk if we have a beekeeper in Lewis:
"I don't think it is warm enough for honey bees in most places up here. It has to be above 11 cent., bumble bees can work down to 6 cent. A friend of mine keeps bees in Co. Durham but it costs him a lot of money each winter to feed them as even in Co. Durham the average summer temperature is too low for them to build up food stocks. Bumble bees can't pollinate a lot of crops, their tongues are too short and they're too big and clumsy! They steal the pollen by biting a hole in the bottom of the flower. That's why you may not be able to grow things like runner beans. We pollinate the peach trees and the apricot by hand (the blossom looks great but the pollen stinks!) you can't do this with members of the legume family though, there's too many flowers and runner beans need to have the stamen 'triggered' by the honey bee. Darwin concluded pollination without bees was not possible but other researchers (J. B. Free, D. A. Kendall, B. D. Smith etc) concluded hand pollination was possible. I did a lot of research on the web as many establishments have tried to grow without bees. Having read all I gave up growing legumes in the poly tunnel and outside..."
The honey made from the species Rhododendron ponticum only holds it's toxicity for a short period of time, and the honey is usually safe by the time it is removed from the hive. When the honey was used as a weapon of war in Persia, the hives themselves were temptingly placed along the route of the famished invading army.
Being of the family Ericaceae as well as the heathers, the rhododendron is related to the azaleas. In the Scotland trailing azalea, one of the rarest pants in the UK is native and grows in rocky areas at 3000m. There is one unconfirmed record of it growing on the Clisham in Harris in 1939.
Other members of the Ericaceae family which have been recorded in the Western Isles include bearberry, cowberry, bilberry, heather, cross-leaved heath, and bell heather, which are all native wildflowers to the Western Isles.
In the first week of February, 2007 the first rhodedendron buds are bursting.
Photograph © Debbie Bozkurt
Stornoway Castle Grounds - Isle of Lewis - Outer Hebrides (Western Isles)