I love finding mountain laurel growing in large, lovely masses in the wild. Its creamy pink flowers glow softly in the forest. Wild mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, sometimes covers the undeveloped banks of creeks and rivers in Eastern Virginia. It grows as an understory shrub in our oak and pine forests.
These evergreen, wild looking shrubs, almost small trees, simply blend into the fabric of the woods through much of the year before bursting into bloom in late April and early May, suddenly elegant and beautiful. Wild mountain laurel usually has white or pink flowers. Some cultivars in the nursery trade have been selected for darker flowers of purple, red or maroon. Ours are probably wild ones, since most of the flowers are white.
Early American botanists first recorded mountain laurel, then called “Spoonwood,” in 1624. Carl Linnaeus named the shrub for Peter Kalm, a Swede, who explored eastern North America in search of new and useful plants in 1747-51. Mountain laurel, one of the most ornamental native plants growing along the east coast of North America, was collected by Kalm to export to gardeners in Europe.
Mountain laurel grows from Maine to Florida in Zones 5-9. It even grows east along the Gulf Coast from western Florida to eastern Louisiana. But it isn’t generally found near the coast south of Virginia. It prefers the coolness of the mountains, and its southern range moves ever further west, at elevation, following the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains.
Mountain laurel, part of the Ericacea family of plants, is related more closely to blueberries than to bay laurel, which is native to Europe. It prefers moist, acidic soil and requires at least partial shade. Although the shrubs flower more abundantly in bright shade than deep, Kalmia don’t like growing in full sun where summers grow hot. These plants are best mulched, and fertilized, with shredded leaves, pine straw or pine bark mulch.
All parts of the mountain laurel shrub are poisonous, for some animals, from root to nectar. They have survived in our garden over the years because the deer rarely graze them. Even honey made from Kalmia flowers in bitter and toxic for human consumption, although it will sustain a hive of bees. Hummingbirds and pollinating insects are attracted to mountain laurel’s flowers.
These shrubs don’t need pruning. They are best left to grow in their own twisted, idiosyncratic way. Over time they form a thicket. Their open structure near the ground makes intriguing little places in the garden for birds and small animals to seek shelter. Their wood is very hard and brittle, much like the wood of azaleas, a relative. Although they can grow to more than 30′, over many years in optimal conditions, most Kalmia won’t grow more than 15′ tall in one’s garden. The largest specimens usually grow in the Appalachian Mountains on steep embankments.
Mountain laurel can be started from cuttings but should never be dug from the wild. Shrubs can be ordered from online nurseries. Sometimes they can be found at nurseries in regions where they will grow. Plant mountain laurel a little “high” like an azalea, as planting too deeply may kill the shrub, especially on heavy clay soils.
Mountain Laurel will grow successfully if you can site them in the moist, shady, acidic forest environment they prefer. Kalmia may be grown alongside dogwood trees, native blueberries, azaleas, native hollies, and of course, pines, oaks, and other native hardwood trees. Water the first few seasons as the shrubs are established, and then only in times of drought.
A little careful planning and initial care will reward you with many years of beauty as Mountain Laurel grows into its potential. It is beautiful throughout the seasons, but especially when it is covered in flowers each May.
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