The Mountain Laurel and the Launching of Spring into Summer

As part of our Cycles of Gaia ecological calendar project, over the next year, we will share an insight each month on one of the member species of the calendar, or some other ecological element of the Northeast Coastal Zone (southern New England) drawn out by the calendar. This month, the blooming season is underway, and we focus on Connecticut’s state flower, the mountain laurel.

A beautiful native flower with a pentagonal structure, the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is ready to bloom in late May/early June’s spring-to-summer transition. This flower, unlike most plants, is tolerant to shade and grows best in partial-shade conditions. It is also evergreen, so when it is not in bloom, it shows off its vibrant greens and open leaves all year round.

Mountain laurel grows gradually, only about a foot per year, and can get between six and fifteen feet tall. The flower is unique for its method of pollen-dispensing. When bees, butterflies, or other larger pollinators land inside its cup-like form, the flower’s stamens spring up, flinging out the pollen, like a catapult.

Ready, aim, fire! (Video of Mountain Laurel firing pollen by Callin Switzer)

Related to rhododendrons, azaleas, blueberries, and cranberries, mountain laurel is a member of the heath/heather family, Ericaceae, and grows best in moist, acidic soils. This makes meadows or woodland areas ideal homes for the mountain laurel.

As mentioned, the mountain laurel is Connecticut’s state flower (it is also Pennsylvania’s!). describes it and summarizes its history:

Designated as the State Flower by the General Assembly in 1907, the Mountain Laurel is perhaps the most beautiful of native American shrubs. Its fragrance and the massed richness of its white and pink blossoms so vividly contrast with the darker colors of the forests and the fields that they have continually attracted the attention of travelers since the earliest days of our colonization. First mentioned in John Smith’s “General History,” in 1624 specimens were sent to Linnaeus, the famous botanist, by the Swedish explorer Peter Kalm in 1750.

Mountain laurel in bloom (Image by Jason Hollinger via Flickr)

But don’t eat it! Although it has no effect on deer (who can consume mounds of it with no upset), to humans, “All parts of Kalmia latifolia are poisonous if ingested and can cause severe digestive upset and other alarming, though usually nonfatal, symptoms such as weakness and paralysis” (Brooklyn Botanic Garden). Other wildlife also make use of the plant. It is a nesting ground for wild turkey and ruffed grouse, and its flowers provide nectar for songbirds, reptiles, and amphibians. Mountain laurel also serves as an effective, comfy place to hide. Small mammals, such as short-tailed shrews (as well as songbirds, reptiles, and amphibians), take cover from predators like sharp-shinned hawks in mountain laurel’s shadow-casting foliage (Daily News-Record).

Mountain laurel’s white and pink vibrancy, distinctive inner symmetry, pink pollen, and pentagonal shape make it easy to spot in New England’s wooded, partially-shaded areas. In the fall and winter, although its flowers are not in bloom, it stays green and is noticeable that way.

So whether you’re heading for a hike soon (or in the heart of winter) keep your eyes open for the mountain laurel. And if you see one in full bloom, maybe play at being a bumble bee, and trigger one of its catapults!

Mountain laurel in the fall. (Image by David Stang via Wikimedia Commons)
Share this Reflection:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *