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Mountain Laurel



Mountain laurel
Kalmia latifolia

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful flowering evergreen shrubs or small trees in North America, mountain laurel's native range extends from New England to the Florida panhandle and west to Indiana. It’s widely distributed in the mountains with smaller natural populations in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

The springtime flowers, each 3/4 to 1 in. wide, are massed in 4-6 inch-wide inflorescences that range from white to pink and crimson and purple. The evergreen foliage is used in winter holiday decorations. Over time it can reach a height and width of 12 to 15 ft. with a gnarled, picturesque trunk.  The 2-5 inch long leaves emerge bronze and mature to lustrous dark green.

Unfortunately, mountain laurel is one of the more difficult plants to propagate in the nursery trade. Over the years an assortment of approaches have been proposed by nursery professionals and researchers. No consensus had been reached. However, the experts agree that some cultivars root more easily than others from cuttings. Cultivars that are easiest to root include 'Bullseye' (pictured), 'Carousel,' 'Nipmuck,' 'Olympic Fire,' 'Pink Charm,' 'Pink Surprise,' 'Quinnipiac,' and 'Sharon Rose.'

Mountain laurel tends to be challenging to grow in the landscape as well. While it can be found growing luxuriously in the wild without any human intervention, it doesn’t exhibit an identical performance in the landscape. In fact, many experienced gardeners have questioned their hard-earned skills when they watch their nursery-propagated mountain laurels turn brown and dry within the first few years after planting. My longtime friend, Dick Bir, recommends in his Growing & Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants (UNC Press, Chapel Hill) book adding a few inches of pine bark into the mineral soil before planting. He also recommends a location in light shade that receives a few hours of sun a day.  It should be an extremely well-drained, acid location.

Avoid the urge to apply copious amounts of fertilizer. Unlike the tomatoes, peppers, and okra in your vegetable garden, mountain laurel is a light feeder that can be harmed with excessive fertilizer applications.

Mountain laurel or calico-bush may be a tad persnickety in the landscape, but the extravagant flowers are worth your time and effort.