Mountain Laurel (Kalmia Latifolia)
Jenkins Arboretum, Devon, Pennsylvania, legacy of H. Lawrence and Elisabeth Philippe Jenkins. Now 46 acres.
Winterthur, the legacy of Henry Francis du Pont
Mt. Cuba, Delaware of the Lammot du Pont Copelands
The Brandywine Conservancy, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, established through the agency of George A. Weymouth, a member of the du Pont family.
The mountain laurel, an evergreen bush, native to 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 have appeared in the last few years.
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 Appalachian 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 cultivated parks and gardens are not 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 human control by beginning to fail to thrive and declining in flower production.
The mountain laurel comes into bloom in mid- or late May as above where, on either side of a white flowering mountain laurel, native, deciduous azaleas of pastel colours present themselves almost modestly.
Sometimes it comes into bloom in early June.
The bio-mechanics of this bush can only be imagined.
In the cycles of her own reproduction,
she remains ‘wild’
and lends herself to us only for a season or two.