THE PONTIC AZALEA, Azalea Pontic
ONE of the many striking incidents of the retreat of the ten thousand, as told by Xenophon in his "Anabasis," is that of the poisoning of many of the soldiers who had eaten of honey in the neighbourhood of Trebizonde. The event occurred soon after that wondrous cry, "Thalatta! Thalatta!" which arose from the weary host at the first sight of the Euxine under the guidance of the servant of the Governor of Gymnias, and it heightens the dramatic effect of the situation. The Colchians had refused them permission to pass through their country, and Xenophon had said, "These alone stand between us and our native land; let us eat them alive." Then the Colchians learned somewhat of the Greek manner of fighting, and they fled in dismay, leaving the soldiers masters of their deserted villages. Then occurred the last of their adventures, which is thus described by Sir Alexander Grant in the volume on Xenophon, contributed to Blackwood's "Ancient Classics"--"It consisted in their finding a quantity of bee-hives, from which they ate the honey abundantly. But the honey was of a kind common to this day in Asia Minor, made from a species of rhododendron, or from the common rose laurel (Nerium oleander), and having intoxicating and poisonous qualities. From the effects of this honey large numbers of the soldiers fell stupefied or maddened to the ground, and for two or three days they were hors de combat, but at the end of that time all recovered."
Remarking on this occurrence, the author of the essay on the "Honey Bee," reprinted from the Quarterly Review, says:--"The soldiers suffered in proportion to the quantity they had eaten: some seemed drunken, some mad, and some all but died. This quality in the honey has been referred by Pliny and others to the poisonous nature of the rhododendron which abounds in those parts; but from inquiries which we have made at Dropmore, and other spots abounding with this shrub, we cannot learn that any difference is perceived in the honey of those districts, or, indeed, that the common bee is ever seen to settle on its flowers. If the Kalmia latifolia be a native of Pontus, the danger is more likely to have arisen from that source, the honey derived from which has been known to prove fatal in several instances in America."
It is pretty generally agreed, both by scholars and naturalists, that the plant from which the poisonous honey was derived was the one now before us, the Pontic azalea; but Sir A. Grant's suggestion of the oleander is reasonable, while the suggestion of the Kalmia, in the second of the above quotations, is unreasonable, because the plant is unknown to the old world. It will not be expected that any attempt should be made in these pages to solve a problem that has perplexed the learned. But having failed to find any traces of poison in honey gathered in districts where rhododendrons and azaleas abound, we have sometimes considered it as not improbable that the Colchians poisoned their wells before they abandoned their villages, and that thus the usually exact writer of the "Anabasis" may have been mistaken. The eating of honey promotes thirst, and honey eaten in haste, and in excess, would prove dangerous without the aid of poison. But if we accept Xenophon's statement without any qualification, then we incline to the opinion that the azalea was not the offending plant, but the more decidedly dangerous Nerium oleander.
The azaleas that are represented by A. Pontica are of the greatest value in the English garden, being perfectly hardy, immensely showy when in flower, and peculiarly pleasing when their leaves acquire the ruddy tints of autumn previous to their fall. They are often mixed with rhododendrons, but usually that mode of disposing of them appears less effective than grouping together in large beds, or scattering them about the borders with other deciduous trees and shrubs. The intensely brilliant golden-green of their new leafage in the spring seems to make a discord when we see patches of it amongst the sombre green of the rhododendrons; but in separate groups, and associated with other deciduous trees, they are as gay and various as any of the flowering trees known to us.
The Pontic azalea is a native of Asia Minor, and in many respects distinct from the hardy azaleas that are natives of North America, such as A. calendulacea, A. nudiflora, and A. viscosa. Its nearest ally is A. Sinensis, a native of China, whence also we have the gorgeous A. India, which in the dawn of our summer renders the conservatories and flower shows resplendent with its many-coloured blooms. These last two are scarcely hardy, and therefore must be grown under glass during at least a portion of the year. But the series first named need no protection at any time, and they will thrive in any soil that is of a sweet mellow texture and free from calcareous matter. It is customary to plant them in peat, and they certainly thrive in such a soil; but in turfy loam, or any soil of a loamy character, and especially if sandy, they will generally prosper and give an abundant reward for the most ordinary care.
The hardy species have been freely crossed, and the result is innumerable varieties, producing flowers of all colours, very many of them "flame-like" in their shades of yellow, orange, red, crimson, and intermediate tints.
Title: THE PONTIC AZALEA, Azalea Pontic Copyright 2002 by PageWise, Inc.
Copyright 2002 by PageWise, Inc.
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