The Spice of Northwest Life: Bigleaf Honey

by Marcia Wilson

A rare delicacy is about to arrive on the market and it poses both a challenge and a delight to the campus gourmands.

One in 128

A cluster of Bigleaf Maple Leaves from the Pacific Northwest
Bigleafs emerge after the spring wildflowers bloom and provide rainforest canopy.

Depending on where staff, faculty, and students reside, they are welcoming or waving goodbye to the lime-green blossoms of one of the world’s most interesting trees, the Bigleaf Maple. The obvious name is coined from its leaf-size.  It is not only the largest maple leaf out of 128 species of maple in the world, but it is also bigger than most deciduous tree leaves, period.  A mature leaf can reach 15”/40cm in diameter.  That easily covers a large laptop.

Sustainable Harvests

Researchers are discussing the investments in what could be a multi-million-dollar industry with tapping Bigleaf for its syrup. 

It is not as sweet as Sugar Maple, but Bigleafs are the dominant maple of the Northwest. Syrup bouquet and production are reliant on environmental conditions—the ultimate example of “you are what you eat”—with a grove tapped on one side of Mt. Baker potentially giving a completely different profile and production than the grove opposite. Like with wine, it is the ultimate in “terroir.”

A red alder catkin hangs in a spur of bigleaf blossoms.  Both trees are found in the same area, and both are valuable food sources.
Photo by Marcia Wilson. A red alder catkin hangs in a spur of bigleaf blossoms. Both trees are found in the same area, and both are valuable food sources.

Hyper-local honey would increase the value of small-market enterprises while in turn support the rainforests as an existing value, as opposed to being a source of short-term harvesting like logging.

There is another reason to appreciate the Bigleaf, and that is the honey from its large, lime-green blossoms.

Forgery of a Forage Crop

The honey market lives in constant threat of forgeries and low-grade products that mixes honey with additives like corn syrup or boiled beet.  Worse, boiled syrups are marketed as honey which undersells honest farmers.  This puts the honey industry in jeopardy. If honey is cheap there is a reason. 

One workaround for beekeepers is letting bees concentrate on gathering nectar in a very short window of time, during which only one or a few specific flowers are blooming. The result, varietal honey, is normally distinctive in color, texture, scent, and flavor from all other honeys.

The lucky owner of bigleaf maple honey will know they have the genuine article as soon as they crack the seal on the jar.  A unique, menthol-eucalyptus perfume wafts up from the viscous liquid, which looks like a delicate golden maple syrup.  The taste borders on minty, with a crisp eucalyptus bite that spreads over the tongue like a drop of gin.  Luckily for the Pacific Northwest, it can be purchased at local specialty stores and apiaries that sell online.  It is a favorite of special pastries, cold drinks, mixed beverages, and minty throat syrups.

Creative Commons Media image.  A jar of honey