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Mountain Laurel - Queen of the Forest

Updated on May 28, 2018

Winter thoughts have faded, brown gray hues given way to the lush green of the mountains. Wildlife, asleep for so long, it seems, make their way through springtime, establishing and re-establishing routine and rituals. Bird song flourishes. Forsythias end their introduction to the season. Nature is busy. Always a surprise, the mountain laurel makes its debut this poetically perfect morning, decorating the forest realm with rose white crown jewels. Clusters of delicate flowers define the sturdy bush and I am in love.

Mountain laurel's common name is kalmia latifolia and its other botanical name is calico bush. This evergreen shrub prefers soil that is well-drained or clay. It does well in full shade, actually prefers it. The leaves are poisonous but the flowers attract birds and butterflies. The mountain laurel is closely related to the azalea and rhododendron and all three belong to the heath family. The glossy deep green leaves give life to the forest in every season.

Mountain laurel can be grown in zones 5-9. It is best to buy the plant as they do not transplant well. Their speckled flowers range in color from white to pink. Using pine needles and wood chips as mulch is recommended as they keep the soil acidic and help retain some of the moisture the plant needs. Mountain laurel does not have to be pruned but deadheading the spent flowers encourages more blooms.

Mountain laurel is great as an accent plant in any mountain landscape. It is low maintenance and serves well as a border or informal hedge in a natural setting. It can be effective in soil erosion and water runoff on steeper land. Planting mountain laurel in clumps or thickets provides a year round haven of protection and cover for wildlife.

Types of Mountain Laurel -

White cultivars - This white to light pink species is usually grown from wild-collected seed. It has names like White mountain, Snowdrift and Silver Dollar.

Pink cultivars - These flowering cultivars are often chosen for the intensity and vividness of their color. Names include Pink Charm and Twenty.

Red cultivars - The dark red buds of this type of laurel are truly beautiful. The interiors may be a lighter red or dark pink. Some names are Olympic Fire and Carol.

Because the leaves of the mountain laurel are toxic, it is said that Native Americans of yore used it as a death potion. Young, broken-hearted Indian maidens would eat the leaves because they no longer wanted to live without the one they loved. The fresh root was used by Native Americans to carve spoons because the root would dry into the shape of a spoon.

Of course now Laurel is a popular name for a girl. She must be lovely for her namesake surely is.

Several states honor the mountain laurel with a festival. In May, Pineville, Kentucky goes all out to celebrate its beauty. It is the oldest festival of its kind. Clarkesville, Georgia has a similar festival. There's something about those little rosy blossoms that garners hope for the abundant summer it seems to foretell.

The mountain laurel inspires the musical muse as well. From Bluegrass, to Celtic, to Folk, musicians have chosen to name their bands after the forest beauty. All in all, it's made quite an impression. And it's easy to fall in love.

How to grow mountain laurel from seed


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