By Rebecca Bowen
May through early June is the best time to enjoy our state flower in bloom, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). The distinctive pink to white umbrella-like blossoms brighten up the spring woods. The five sides of the flowe
r are punctuated by the stamens, pushing into the sides in individual pouches and giving it the characteristic “parasol” look.
The unique shape of mountain laurel flowers gained the interest of early explorers and botanists, and it was introduced in European gardens in 1726. The scientific name, Kalmia honors Finnish botanist and student of Linnaeus, Peter Kalm, who was the first to study this genus.
Mountain laurel requires acidic soil, limited light and specific fungal relationships to flourish. It can be difficult to propagate and grow in a garden setting. Happily for Pennsylvanians, it grows in rocky, dry woods, mountain tops and slopes. It ranges throughout the eastern U.S. from Maine (where it is rare) south to southeastern Mississippi along the Appalachians, piedmonts and foothills.
While mountain laurel is tolerated by some wildlife such as deer (though not a preferred food), it is poisonous to humans and livestock if eaten. Its flowers are important to pollinators, but honey made from mountain laurel is unpleasant or toxic. Mountain laurel is not a protected species; however, you should never remove any plant from its home without permission of the landowner.
The mountain laurel bloom in Penn’s Woods can be quite the spectacle, and one readily observed via state forest road or trail. If a ridgetop ride or hike is in your holiday plans, you just might see why it was named our state flower in 1933.
Reference: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Donald Culross Peattie. 1977.
All photos by DCNR.