Sunday, June 10, 2012

Laurel of the Mountains

Kalmia latifolia, or Mountain Laurel, has a special place in my family history.  My grandmother, on my father’s side, chose this flower to make up her bridal bouquet.  The wedding was in June and the laurel flowers were in abundant supply from local woods.  The flowers appear in a wide variety of colors ranging from whites and pale pinks to dark pink and white with a reddish band through the flower.  So many cultivars have been created you can find wide variety from plant to plant.  There are even dwarf versions which stay smaller and flower quite heavily.  When young, Mountain Laurel has a similar appearance to most broad leaved evergreens; it has a flowing, billowy profile and tends to put out growth that mounds upwards.  As the plant ages, however, it becomes much more heavy limbed, twisted, and gnarled.  The native plant can reach heights over 10 feet and become equally as wide or wider as stems will root into the ground.  This means that Mountain Laurel can be a tricky foundation plant due to size when it becomes older.  Luckily, it takes well to pruning and can be cut back like most other broad leaved evergreens (carefully removing overgrown sections and avoiding the use of hedge trimmers). 
                                                      Kalmia latifolia flowers.

Some gardeners have trouble with Kalmia as it does have some specific requirements.  It will not tolerate hot, dry locations so avoid planting it in a southern facing location.  Wind at any time of year can produce damage to the leaves.  At the same time, Kalmia does not tolerate wet feet and should be planted well away from automatic sprinkler systems and/or downspouts.  Like Rhododendrons, Mountain Laurels have shallow, mat-like root systems.  It is quite easy to drown them or have them dry out.  At the same time, I’ve seen them growing in dry oak forests in massive stands looking as healthy as can be.  I expect there’s enough of a composted leaf layer to protect the roots and trap moisture.  Kalmia have few pests and diseases, borers being a somewhat common insect pest along with rust fungus attacking the leaves.  Scale and lacebug may also prove to be pests; lacebug being a particular problem in bright, sunny, exposures.
                                                      Mountain Laurel Foliage

So you have a great spot for a laurel but aren’t sure which type to go with?  Here are some that I’ve had direct experience with.

1.       Kalmia latifolia.  This is the native and can range in color from pale pink to white.  The buds tend to be pale pink.

2.      Kalmia latifolia ‘Olympic Fire.’  This version has bright red buds and rich pink flowers.  It’s quite impressive when mature.

3.      Kalmia latifolia ‘Sarah.’  Another laurel with bright red buds, so bright they stand out even from a distance.  The flowers open a deep, pinkish red.

4.      Kalmia latifolia ‘Shooting Star.’  If you’re looking for flowers with a different look, this might be the plant to go with.  Unlike the other varieties, ‘Shooting Star’ has petals that bend backward, looking like miniature, white, shooting stars.

5.      Kalmia latifolia ‘Twenty.’  This impressive plant tends to have more compact growth and makes an excellent foundation plant.  The flowers start with dark pink buds and open to a more shell pink flower.
There are also a number of dwarf varieties with names like ‘Elf’, ‘Tiddlywinks’ and ‘Tinkerbell’.  The growth tends to be more uniform and they turn into low billowing mounds up to about 4’ high at maturity.  They will flower heavily but the leaves tend to be smaller.
                                                   A pink selection of Mountain Laurel.

Another option, if you’re interested in native laurels, is the Sheep’s Laurel or Kalmia angustifolia.  It is low growing, reaching about 3’ maximum.  The leaves are smaller and more willow-like.  I’ve not had them in a garden personally, but they seem to be especially tough; growing in dry, inhospitable places.  Occasionally, they turn up in areas that are damp in the spring, but dry in the summer. 

Recommended Plant:  Papaver somniferum ‘Lauren’s Grape.’  I met this plant for the first time today, 6/10/12 at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens.  Yes, it is a Bread Poppy or Opium Poppy, so purchasing it may prove difficult; state laws vary.  In some locations it’s possible to sell the seeds, but not live plants.  Luckily, this poppy is easy to start from seed and tends to self-sow.  I’ve never seen this kind of poppy with such a rich colored flower.  Pink and white varieties have turned up in my garden in the past and they’re quite pretty but cannot hold a candle to this rich purple.

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