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.