Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is one of our showiest flowering shrubs. It puts on a dazzling display in the spring; one that many eagerly look forward to. Laurel belongs to the Heath family. Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Blueberries and Cranberries are also members of the Heath family. Mountain Laurel leaves are poisonous to livestock, which is also true of Azaleas and Rhododendrons, but not of Blueberries or Cranberries.
Mountain Laurel bloom from large, woody, evergreen shrubs found in many places in the Pine Barrens, and their colors range from white to delicate pink. Their leaves, which are dark green and leathery on top and an olive green beneath, are found in clusters at the end of the branches. The flowers grow from the center of these clusters of leaves. They need sandy, acidic soil and shade.
The flowers have a story of their own. Their buds look like a delicate floral decoration found on a lavishly-decorated cake. But, it is their reproductive “mechanical” action that is the most interesting. Each cup-like flower contains 10 stamens (the male parts of the flower that hold the pollen or sperm) that surround a central ovary. The heads of these stamens are imbedded in the sides of the cup-like flowers. As a bee or other pollinating insect enters the flowers, the movement causes the release of the pollen-bearing tips. As the 10 stamens spring inward they spread their pollen on the furry body of the foraging bee who then carries it to the next flower, thus enabling cross-pollination.
Mountain Laurel has also been called Calico Bush. Because of this, Calico Ridge got its name. The Ridge is on the banks of the Oswego River near Harrisville Pond (Woodland Township). Dense stands of Mountain Laurel are found there. The definition of calico is spotted or mottled, and Mountain Laurel, in profusion, certainly gives that impression.
Mountain Laurel’s little sister, Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) is also common in the pines. Its alternate name is Lambkill, which is what it can do to lambs or any other unfortunate animal that eats it. As a child, I sorrowfully witnessed the demise of a couple of our free-ranging goats who succumbed to its delicious charms. Sheep Laurel is shorter and easier to reach, and it’s lighter green leaves are more tender than Mountain Laurel leaves. Structurally, its flowers are replicas of the Mountain Laurel, but are smaller and are deep pink.
Laurel is now in full bloom. It’s a sight you don’t want to miss. So be on the lookout for it.