Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

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.

Read More on Our Forest Garden

Mountain Laurel, April 2017

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

3 responses to “Plants I Love That Deer Ignore: Mountain Laurel

  1. While deer mostly leave mountain laurel alone, not all deer follow the rules! I know of two instances where a shrub was nibbled to stalks here in town. Luckily, mine seem to be ignored, wish I could say the same for the Japanese hollies, which I have to fence every winter. Do they nibble your native hollies?

    • Eliza they don’t nibble the Ilex opaca that I’ve noticed. And the leave the Chinese and Japanese hollies alone, too. But I planted a whole hedge of Blue Prince and the female holly that goes with that one (not remembering the name off-hand) soon after we moved here. Mistake! The deer ate them down to a few scrawny stems. An expensive lesson. My neighbors have gorgeous Azaleas in their yard right by the street, and yet the deer find their way INTO my garden to eat the Azaleas down to nubs. Many are the exact same Indica hybrids, too. I’ve not been able to buy Milorganite for a couple of years and I can really see the difference because the deer have grown much bolder. I wonder whether the Kalmia in your town was a hybrid, or the wild variety? Often newly planted shrubs have been fertilized heavily, and the deer eat them to get the Nitrogen salts. Older plants and wild plants just don’t taste as good.

      • One is new and the other is old, I wondered about the fertilizer/ newly transplanted situation, too. Deer are growing more numerous here and I expect the situation will grow only worse. At least I had 30 years of relative freedom from deer munching. 🙂 This year the garden will be enclosed in deer fencing…ugly, but necessary. I want to enjoy my beets and sunflowers!

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