You’re forgiven if Van Morrison’s classic song “Tupelo Honey” (“She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey, just like honey from the bee”) is running through your head as you continue to read.
The 1971 song and album of the same name – ironically, written in New York – brought the celebrated honey produced in a northwestern Florida/southern Georgia swamp to widespread public attention. The Peter Fonda movie Ulee’s Gold did the same in the 1990s.
Honey aficionados, however, have long sung the praises of Tupelo honey. It’s one of the world’s rarest and most expensive honeys, nearly impossible to harvest and in season for just a short period of time.
Although it’s often difficult to find, though, finding a jar of Tupelo honey is definitely worth the quest.
The Unusual Story of Tupelo Honey
Some types of honey (Manuka honey, for example), are primarily harvested in a single country. Tupelo honey is even rarer. Its nectar comes from the blossoms of a tree that only grows in a few areas, and only one of those areas has an ecosystem that can support groves large enough to produce honey: the Southern Cypress swamp near Florida’s panhandle. That’s why Tupelo honey is often referred to locally as swamp honey.
More specifically, Tupelo groves can only be found in the Apalachicola River basin in Florida and the Okeefenokee swamp in Georgia. Even more specifically, real Tupelo honey only comes from the White Tupelo tree (also known as the white gum Tupelo or the Ogechee lime tree). We’ll explain why that’s so important shortly.
Harvesting Tupelo honey is no easy feat. The Tupelo groves are mostly deep in the swamp, so beekeepers often place their hives on elevated platforms near the river; that ensures that they’re not washed away when the river rises. In order to reach the honeycombs, the beekeepers have to use boats or rafts to harvest the honey.
They don’t have much time to waste, either. White Tupelo trees blossom for only about 14 days in early spring (the exact dates depend on weather conditions). And several other trees and plants which also produce honey nectar, like the Black Tupelo, Willow and Ti-Ti, blossom right before the White Tupelo, and the Gallberry flowers immediately afterward.
The unique qualities of Tupelo honey, and the high prices it brings because of its rarity, demand that it’s sold as a unifloral variety (unlike multiflorals like wildflower honey) – so no Black Tupelo, Willow, Ti-Ti or Gallberry nectar can be allowed to mix with the White Tupelo nectar. For that reason, beekeepers must clean their honeycombs just before the White Tupelo blossoms, and harvest the honey as soon as the short season ends. That’s quite a nerve-wracking process, particularly since the hives are only accessible via boat.
What happens if the varieties end up mixed? There’s a good chance the end product can’t be sold as Tupelo honey. In Florida, the state does pollen analysis to verify that honey is actually what the producer claims it to be; it has to have at least 51% Tupelo content to be labeled Tupelo honey, and the best harvests are closer to 90-95%.
One other thing: a very small amount of honey is produced during those 14 days. It’s estimated that it requires the nectar of about two million Tupelo flowers just to make a pound of Tupelo honey. That means very little final product can reach the market every year, making the honey even rarer.
Tupelo honey is light amber in color, and known for a mild, sweet and fruity taste with an aroma of flowers and cinnamon. The primary reason for its trademark sweetness is its high fructose content, which also makes it nearly impervious to crystallization and an acceptable sweetener to be used by diabetics.
And those who’ve tried this honey will tell you that it’s definitely worth the effort to find it.
Finding and Eating Tupelo Honey
You’re unlikely to see Tupelo honey sold at your local grocery store, and depending on where you live, you may not even find it in specialty stores or organic supermarkets. Some of those stores and chains do carry it on-and-off throughout the year, but a Google search will turn up at least some vendors on the Internet during any season.
The best way to locate high-quality Tupelo honey, though, is to take a trip to the Southeastern United States. The Panhandle city of Wewahitchka, Florida hosts a Tupelo honey festival in May each year, and of course, you’ll find the best Tupelo at local farm stands and stores in the swamp area where White Tupelo trees grow. But the entire region along the Appalachian Trail has adopted the honey as a staple of southern food, and you’ll find that many restaurants as far north as North Carolina specialize in southern dishes featuring Tupelo Honey.
Perhaps the best non-Panhandle restaurant to sample the honey is at the Tupelo Honey Café, based in Asheville but with locations, believe it or not, as far west as Idaho and Colorado (the San Francisco location has closed). They serve complete breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner menus rooted in traditional southern cooking. But they often use Tupelo honey in such widely varied regional entrees as buttermilk-fried chicken and grits, fried green tomatoes, sweet potato pancakes with pecans, glazed meatloaf with potato cracklins, breakfasts such as fried avocado drizzled with honey, and desserts like peanut butter mousse and banana pudding with blueberry sauce.
Tupelo Honey can be used in a number of other delicious ways. It matches well with strong blue and goat cheeses, it’s terrific drizzled on everything from French toast and biscuit crumbles to fruit and shrimp, it makes a homemade vinaigrette sparkle, it’s perfect as a meat glaze or as an ingredient in barbecue sauce, and it’s great when used to sweeten tea or eaten straight from the jar.
Health Benefits of Tupelo Honey
The only special medical benefit that Tupelo can claim over other varieties of honey is the high fructose content mentioned earlier, which means it’s better for your glucose and blood sugar levels.
However, like any raw, unfiltered honey (highly-processed versions have the beneficial pollen and propolis removed), Tupelo honey is rich in antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It’s a good way to soothe sore throats and treat the underlying infections causing them, it promotes a healthy immune system and digestive tract, and it even helps some people with sleep difficulties.
And like all raw honey, Tupelo honey is gluten-free. It’s high in carbs and calories so it shouldn’t be a diet staple – but it’s one of the best treats around.