Exploring The Last Green Valley, Mountain Laurel – Appreciating Kalmia latifolia, Our Connecticut State Flower

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Exploring The Last Green Valley, Mountain Laurel – Appreciating Kalmia latifolia, Our Connecticut State Flower

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Mountain Laurel – Appreciating Kalmia latifolia, Our Connecticut State Flower

I was first introduced to mountain laurel after I moved to northeastern Connecticut in 1980. I lived on Route 198 in Woodstock, and at that time, the 5-mile stretch of road between Woodstock and Southbridge, Massachusetts had only a few houses. Driving along that woodsy, quiet stretch of road you would see large thickets of mountain laurel underneath the tree canopy. Both sides of the road seemed to be lined with the thick stands. You can still find mountain laurel along that stretch of road, though many more houses have been built there since the early 1980s.

I’ll never forget that first June when I saw the mountain laurel completely covered in pink-white blooms. It looked like it had snowed the night before and even at night the car headlights lit up the brightly-colored blooms. Since then I have always looked for blooming mountain laurel and this is the time of year to find it.

Our region is mostly forested and the tree types that dominate are deciduous trees of oak, hickory and maple. My Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees lists mountain laurel as “found in dry or moist acid soils; in understory of mixed forests on upland mountain slopes and in valleys.”  Our region has plenty of excellent soil conditions for mountain laurel. Here is some other information on our state flower from my Audubon guide.

  • Mountain laurel is an evergreen that can grow to 15 feet in height in southern regions and usually about 8 to 10 feet in our region. It has many stems with larger stems up to 6 inches in diameter. It is a thicket-forming shrub with ¾ to 1 inch wide beautiful bell and saucer-shaped flowers that are clustered close together.
  • Mountain laurel leaves are evergreen and 2.5 to 4 inches long and 1 to 1.5 inches wide. The leaves are narrow and lance-shaped, with a hard whitish point at the tip. The bark is a dark reddish-brown color, thin fissured into long narrow ridges.
  • The range of mountain laurel is from Maine south to Florida, west to Louisiana and north to Indiana. It grows to an elevation of 4000 feet and higher in the southern Appalachians.

One of my favorite places to enjoy mountain laurel is along the Nipmuck Trail in Ashford. The trail crosses Boston Hollow Road up a steep ridge and into the Yale Forest. The forest canopy here is perfect for mountain laurel and the trail passes directly through a long and large thicket. For a hundred feet or more the trail winds through the tangled mass of mountain laurel. When in full bloom the soft hum of bees can be heard and the air has a slight grape scent.

In 1907, maintain laurel was named the Connecticut state flower. It is also the state flower for Pennsylvania. Due to its prolific flowering, it is a popular ornamental shrub that can be purchased at nurseries and is also found displayed in many parks. Today there are several cultivars of mountain laurel to choose from.

One of the more important books to purchase about growing mountain laurel is Kalmia: Mountain Laurel and Related Species by Dr. Richard Janes, owner of Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden. You can find it on Amazon and Broken Arrow Nursery has an excellent website at http://www.brokenarrownursery.com.

Mountain laurel is relatively easy to grow, does best in partial sun and shade, and prefers moist, well drained and acidic soil. Mountain laurel has a shallow root system and needs regular watering. You’ll also want to mulch the plant to help hold the moisture in the soil and a combination of pine needles and shredded bark is suggested. If you already have rhododendron and azaleas growing well in the area, then mountain laurel will also do well.

If you’re hiking our Connecticut hills over the next couple of weeks, there is a good chance you’ll find mountain laurel blooming. If you find a large thicket, make sure to stop and listen for the hum of working bees. Breathe deep the magical scent of our native mountain laurel and pause to give thanks for the day.

We live in a beautiful region. I invite you to get outdoors and enjoy our state flower when it is in full bloom. Join us as we appreciate this beautiful native shrub, share it with others, and pass it on to the next generation. With your help they too will come to understand and appreciate all we have here in The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work

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