Azalea Galls: Food or Death?

Nothing makes me more interested in a new food than trying to figure out if it might kill me. Such is the case with the pinxter apple, a gall formed by Exobacidium fungi on typically poisonous rhododendron species.

There are plenty of reports of people eating these things in the eastern US. The taste is described as follows:

…and it seems that it’s made its way to at least one restaurant table.

Reading the context in these reports, they’re always talking about a pink azalea growing in wetlands in the eastern US. Probably this means Rhododendron periclymenoides, possibly R. canescens or even R. viscosum.

If there is a historical tradition of eating something – and clearly there are many people who’ve eaten pinxter apples – that is all the evidence I need to discount the dire warnings about “mad honey” and other forms of rhododendron poisoning. Maybe there are trace quantities of grayanotoxin in pinxter apples, but many people have eaten these things in moderate quantities without suffering obvious harm, so I’d feel comfortable trying one.

But the rhodies that line Washington’s country roads are completely different species, with no known tradition of gall-eating. And honestly, despite the lack of reported fatalities, grayanotoxin poisoning does not sound fun.

I put out a call for any gardeners growing pinxter azaleas on my local Buy Nothing group, but unsurprisingly did not get any bites. We’re proud of our R. macrophyllum around here. Maybe someday, if I visit the Appalachians at the right time of year, I’ll find a pinxter apple to try. Until then, well, if I really want a mild-tasting crunchy wet plant to eat, there’s always horsetail shoots.

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