Mountain Laurel (Kalmia Latifolia)
Winterthur, the legacy of Henry Francis du Pont
Mt. Cuba, Delaware of the Lammot du Pont Copelands
The Brandywine Conservancy, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania was established through the agency of George A. Weymouth, a member of the du Pont family.
The mountain laurel, an evergreen bush, native of the Piedmont of the eastern US, has been the state flower of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since the early 1930s.
Mountain laurel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late May, 2017
Related distantly to the rhododendron family, poisonous in all its parts to humans and several other animals, it has complex and spectacular flowers.
Equally complex but not wholly understood, is its multi-year life cycle.
Famously fussy about the ground and community in which it grows, and the spacing of other plants around it, its leaves have been spotted for some years in south-eastern Pennsylvania.
On some bushes, very few flowers appeared this year.
Asking about this at Mt. Cuba, a paradise of native plants in Delaware, I was advised not to be concerned.
All mountain laurel in this part of the Piedmont are diseased, I was told, and in decline.
Aided by a shallow root system, they root themselves in due course elsewhere, often on the upper slopes of hills and rocky terrain, uncrowded.
These are their native habitats.
It is, I suppose for this reason that many nurseries, even those specializing in native plants, do not stock mountain laurel. I’ve never seen it at flower exhibitions, even the largest.
It does not lend itself to landscaping or human control except for brief periods.
The bush has the extravagant stretch of the tree rhododendrons.
And a pollen dispersal mechanism in which its anthers expel pollen with some force by tensing and arcing when they sense that insects are near.
At a certain point of its knowledge alone, it escapes control by beginning to fail to thrive and declining in flower production.
Sometimes it comes into bloom in May as here where, on either side of a white flowering mountain laurel, native, deciduous azaleas of pastel colours present themselves almost modestly.
This year of disorders, mountain laurel came into bloom in early June when the only deciduous azaleas, of closely related and eye-catching shades of orange
were setting fires distant enough at Winterthur to cause no quarrel.
The bio-mechanics of this bush can only be imagined.
I like very much that we think we can cultivate her.
But in the cycles of her own reproduction, she remains ‘wild’ and lends herself to us only for a season or two.
Not, that it is for me to like or dislike. None of this is for us.