The Photography of D L Ennis, and more!


Monday, May 15, 2006

The Sweet Mountain Laurel of Spring

Image: by, D L Ennis, the blossoms of the Mountain Laurel

Right now, around my Blue Ridge Mountain home, the mountain Laurel is painted in the pink and white flowers of spring. The mountains of the Blue Ridge are rich with mountain laurel, (Kalmia latifolia) and it you take a ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway or the back roads in the mountains you will experience it’s beauty now at lower elevations and a little later in May in the higher elevations.

Kalmia was named for Peter Kalm, a Finnish botanist and student of Carl Linnaeus who sent Kalm to the New World, in 1753, to collect plants. Kalm was the first to study the genus, and the teacher named it for his student. The specific name, latifolia, means "wide leaf," a character that differentiates this from five other species of Kalmia, all residents of North America.
The Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with a dense rounded crown and crooked branches which Native Americans used to make fact, the name "spoonwood" has been used for this shrub.

Mountain laurel is a member of the Heath family (Ericaceae). The dark brown bark tinged with red becomes flaky in long strips on the older stems, but is smooth on newer wood. New growth, both twigs and leaves, is usually fuzzy. The mature leaves are alternate (rarely in threes), leathery, oblong, about 3 to 4 inches long, with smooth margins tapering to both tip and short petiole. The upper surface is dark green and very glossy with a yellow midrib, while the lower surface is a lighter yellow-green.

Image: by, D L Ennis, the foliage of the Mountain Laurel

Mountain laurel is also called the "Calico-bush" the name coming from the pink-trimmed waxy white blossoms. The flowers are borne on one-inch pedicels and produced in terminal clusters or corymbs four to six inches across, and the buds are conical, fluted and deeper pink. When the campanulate flowers open, the corollas appear as five-sided, white, inverted parasols about an inch across with pink dots and a wavy pink line in the center. The ten stamens in each flower have anthers buried in individual "pockets" in the corolla completing the illusion of parasols with dainty ribs. The English naturalist, Mark Catesby, discovered mountain laurel during his travels in the Carolinas and Virginia and introduced it to Europe in 1726. It was Kalm who discovered the poisonous properties of the foliage when some sheep belonging to the expedition in which he traveled almost died after browsing the leaves, hence the name "lambkill." Horses are also susceptible, but deer seem not to be so seriously affected. However, deer do not appear to prefer it, browsing this only when little else is available. Honey made from mountain-laurel is also believed to be poisonous.

You can find mountain laurel in the wild by watching for the distinctive shiny evergreen foliage. It can be found along rivers in cool, acid but well-drained areas, especially along the Blue Ridge or westward. Look for openings created by trails and roads and in the interstate medians, these plants often form a glossy green wall at the edge of the forest. Usually six to ten feet high, these handsome shrubs may reach 20-30 feet in height and form tangled patches so dense that they are difficult to walk or even crawl through. That characteristic plus the shiny smooth appearance of large patches earned them the names "laurel hell" and "laurel slick" from early settlers. Where lumbering operations or fires removed the canopy trees, the mountain-laurel often forms almost pure stands. In bloom, the "laurel slicks" of the highlands become "pink beds."

Because of the poisonous properties, no part of the plant should be used for internal medicinal purposes nor should the leaves or stems be chewed. Indians are said to use the expressed juice of the leaves or a strong decoction of them to commit suicide. The leaves are the official part; powdered leaves are used as a local remedy in some forms of skin diseases, and are a most efficient agent in syphilis, fevers, jaundice, neuralgia and inflammation, but great care should be exercised in their use. Whisky is the best antidote to poisoning from this plant. An ointment for skin diseases is made by stewing the leaves in pure lard in an earthenware vessel in a hot oven.
Mountain laurel is the state flower of Connecticut and Pennsylvania and is most likely not in full bloom in these areas until mid-June.

Plants are not easily transplanted and should not be dug from the wild, but obtained from readily available nursery stock.

Image: Map of the “Sweet Mountain Laurel Loop.” Click the map to enlarge!

If you like to take a ride in the mountains of Virginia to see the sweet mountain laurel of spring you may want to consider the “Sweet Mountain Laurel Loop.” The Sweet Mountain Laurel Loop is a trail of existing roads that carry you through some of the most beautiful areas of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

The sites on this loop are located on or near the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. The scenery is breath-taking, and each of these sites offers an unusual glimpse into the beauty of the Blue Ridge. Please be aware that while the Parkway may be closed during winter months, during the rest of the year, this area will overwhelm you with its natural beauty. This loop provides a nice amalgam of private and public lands, outdoor recreation, wineries, and bed-and-breakfasts. The drive from site to site is almost as amazing as the sites themselves; the Blue Ridge Parkway offers spectacular vistas, with overlooks stationed every few miles. Many of these sites, such as Mabry Mill and Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, also have rich historical backgrounds. Be sure to stop and sample the local flavor during your visit.

Be sure on your drive to visit the Meadows of Dan, a wonderful little community in a beautiful setting, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the junction of Va. State highway 58. One of our writers here on the Blue Ridge Gazette, Leslie Shelor, lives there and has this to say:

Image: by Leslie Shelor, Getting Ready for a Festival at Meadows of Dan

"Today Meadows of Dan is still a small community. There is little in the way of industrialization in the area; the terrain isn't suited to large development. Small family farms cover the landscape along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the community center is made up of small shops that cater to the tourist trade as well as to the locals. The business leaders in the area have some unique ideas for shopping experiences, with antiques, gift shops, a fudge factory, craft shops, farmers' market and more creating a pleasant destination. Once a year, in August, the town holds a Folk Fair featuring music, local artisans and other festivities. Almost every week a music event is taking place in Meadows of Dan, with bluegrass and old-time performers. The people of the area are friendly, used to the visits of thousands of tourists throughout the season."

Chateau Morrisette has lots going on; I put their festivals on the BRG calendar page. Sue's festivals are Hit & Miss in the Mountains May 27 to 29, Crafts in the Meadows over the 4th of July weekend, Chinquapin Festival, Labor Day Weekend and Indian Summer Days, October 21 & 22. Then there's the Corn Maze and Crooked Road.”

So, get out there and see the sweet mountain laurel of spring before the blooms fade and stop off and visit with some of the friendly local folks of the region!

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