Eavesdropping on a Conversation on Manzanita and Mountain Laurel Pipes – Robert Perkins & Mike Leverette

Over the years I have kept this interchange between Robert Perkins and Mike Leverette on my hard drive on the computer. I found it enjoyable and educational at the same time. I wrote Robert and asked for permission to pass this interchange on to readers of this blog. Robert Perkins is a pipe maker http://www.RMPerkins.com and Mike Leverette was a friend and mentor to me with regard to the pipe and its history. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of Mike and wish I could give him a call.

Here is the interchange between them:

Robert Perkins

You see, when imported briar started getting scarce during WWII, US pipemakers started looking for alternatives, and they were basically split into two camps: those who started using manzanita and those who started using mountain laurel.

Ever hear of a pipemaker called Breezewood? Well, Breezewood was one of the companies using mountain laurel as a substitute for Mediterranean briar, just like Monterey Pipes was one of the companies using manzanita, or “Mission Briar”.


Breezewood quietly closed its doors after the war because, as it turns out, all parts of the mountain laurel (Important: Not Manzanita) are “dangerously poisonous“.

Mountain laurel contains a powerful neurotoxin that, when ingested, causes convulsions, paralysis, and death within a matter of about six hours.

And somewhere along the way — I’m guessing way too late in the game for some — folks using mountain laurel as a substitute for Mediterranean briar figured this out.

I’m just gonna bet money that people started getting sick, maybe even dying: people growing and harvesting mountain laurel, people in pipe factories breathing all that mountain laurel dust, and possibly even folks who smoked those mountain laurel pipes, later on down the line.

People caught on. Maybe there were even some items in the news. And suddenly US pipemakers couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and mountain laurel pipe production fast enough.

The phrase “Imported Briar” became all the rage, and never again did US pipemakers attempt to grow or harvest briar — any kind of briar — ever again.

Just for the sake of reference, though, I should point out that nearly every single product on the market, right up until the 70s contained lead, asbestos, and so on. Heck, doctors used to put mercury thermometers in our mouths and not think a thing about it. A lot of this stuff, we just didn’t know any better.

But anyway, manzanita got caught up in all of this mess. It’s not poisonous, and it makes a fine smoking pipe, but who would want to take the risk, after that mountain laurel fiasco, huh?

You see, it’s kinda like mushrooms and toadstools. Nobody wants to pick mushrooms when there’s the significant risk that you might pick a few toadstools by mistake.

Why not just make soup and let other people worry about which one is a mushroom and which one is a toadstool?

Something like that, anyway.

So, just to recap, here:
* mountain laurel is poisonous;
* manzanita is NOT poisonous (somehow I feel like I am not emphasizing that enough)
* and after the war, the use of manzanita briar ended and the phrase “Imported Briar” became popular because US pipemakers had to disassociate themselves from the wartime practice of using mountain laurel as a substitute for Mediterranean briar.

So what do you think? Does that sound plausible?

And where is my deerstalker hat and my calabash pipe? I think I deserve a smoke.

Mike Leverette replied

Robert, my take on this subject is:

When briar was first used for pipes, everyone heralded it as the ultimate pipe wood and actually went wild over briar. In less than ten years from the first English maker to use briar, there were over a dozen briar pipe makers in London alone and all exclaiming the virtues of briar. Even the great salesman, Alfred Dunhill, exclaimed over the properties briar. So I believe everyone has, more or less, become brainwashed that briar is the only wood worth using for pipes. Surely, it is a great wood for pipes which I cannot say anything against but there are other great woods out there as well. We have been told many times over the past decade or so that briar is best for pipe making because it is A) ‘fire resistant,’ it is B) ‘very hard wood,’ it has C) ‘extremely tight grain,’ etc.

A) “Fire Resistant” – briar is wood and wood burns; there is no ‘fire resistance’ to it!
B) “Very hard wood” – yes it is hard, yet there are many woods out there which are harder per any hardness scale one wishes to use.
C) “Extremely tight grain” – again I agree. Briar has some tight grain, interesting grain and even beautiful grain. Yet there are woods out there with just as beautiful grain as briar.

The two alternative woods mentioned in this topic, manzanita and mountain laurel have been used for centuries, first by the American Indian and then the pioneers. Mountain Laurel was a favorite pipe making wood of soldiers on both sides during the War of Northern Aggression. Yes, before you ask, there were more wood pipes smoked in that war than clay pipes. Actually, the soldiers would make pipes from any wood handy but preferred mountain laurel. I am sure that the local population were using briar long before the fabled pilgrimage to Napoleon’s place of captivity, or was it his birth place? A very interesting article on pipes of other woods is Ben Rapaport’s article “Un-Briars: The Antecedents of Erica Arborea,” Spring 2001 issue of “Pipes and Tobaccos” in which Ben lists 29 different woods used for pipe making through the centuries.

Anyway, to stop preaching and return to the topic, brainwashed is too harsh a word for here but we have been treated to literature, word-of-mouth, etc about briar being the best and only wood for pipes to the point that immediately after WWII, everyone hasten to get briar pipes back on the market; hence forgetting about the two war-time substitutes.

Then again – – –
I wrote the above two days ago while waiting to be activated. During this time I have heard another pipe smoker state that he thought the pipes made from the two alternative woods, manzanita and mountain laurel, were placed into production so fast (because of the sudden stoppage in briar supply) that they were not cured properly which led to pipe smokers having problems with the pipes made from these woods. Therefore, the pipe smoking community of that day wished only for the imported briar after the war. This also makes a lot of sense!

Happy Puffing

3 thoughts on “Eavesdropping on a Conversation on Manzanita and Mountain Laurel Pipes – Robert Perkins & Mike Leverette

  1. Pingback: This is not a pipe... - Appalachian History -

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