The rhododendron flower is derived from a large, 1000 species genus of blossoming plants, and is a member of the ericaceae family. Although the vast majority of species grow from shrubs, some may also be seen blossoming from small trees which are either deciduous or evergreen, and contain spiraling leaf arrangements that can be either scaled or covered in fine hairs. The flowers themselves are considered to be quite showy, and burst forth in large pink, burgundy, peach, light purple and white clusters. These flowers grow their best in acidic, loamy soil, and prefer humid regions under partial shade.
The first named rhododendron flower, rhododendron hirsutum, was discovered by the Flemish botanist Charles l’Ecluse during the 16th century. Since then, this plant has become very well traveled. In 1656, the first rhododendron hirsutum was introduced to Britain; between 1734 and 1736 two more species – rhododendron viscosum and rhododendron maximum – found their way into Europe by way of America; while all throughout the 17th century, hybrids of the plants rhododendron indicum and rhododendron tamurae were being cultivated in Japan. The rhododendron flower is being investigated for a variety of medicinal uses – from its anti-inflammatory properties, to its use as a regulator of kidney functions. However, these plants are considered very toxic – but this is not a new revelation. Xenophon – the Greek soldier, historian and philosopher’s contemporary – noted Greek troops retreating from the region of Asia Minor. In his description he mentioned the peculiar behavior of the soldiers as they left – making special mention of their having raided local beehives. It was later discovered that these hives contained honey that was originally derived from rhododendron plants, which contain andromedotoxin. What these soldiers were likely experiencing is commonly called “mad honey intoxication,” which can cause nausea, shock, hallucinations, as well as slowed respiration and heart rate. This poisoning, though, generally not fatal, is quite common – even in modern times. It is said that at least a few people every year consume the toxic honey.
Because of its venomous history, the rhododendron flower has long been an emblem of danger, and they are sometimes presented as a warning. However, these flowers are mostly given as gifts for their bold beauty. Although their symbolism may be considered negative, it is not uncommon to see that same negativity turned around – that is, instead of giving it as a warning, offer it to the recipient to represent your protectiveness and wish for their personal well-being.