An undeniably beautiful shrub in any season, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) explodes into bloom in late spring to early summer. One of our nation’s greatest contributions to the botanical world, mountain laurels possess beautiful, shiny, deep green foliage. They boast legendary clusters of star-like buds opening to delicate cup-shaped flowers with frilly edges. The flower buds emerge red, open pink or white and reveal purple dappled markings inside the flower, giving this shrub its nickname “calico bush.”
A native from Maine to Florida, these broadleaf evergreens intrigue, but sometimes frustrate the home gardener. With so many magnificent specimens growing wild in eastern forests, why is it sometimes difficult to grow mountain laurel in the home landscape?
Mountain laurel needs the proper site to thrive. These plants will tolerate sun if there is adequate moisture and the root area is cool, however, partial shade is preferable and shade will do if there is some morning sun. Plant your mountain laurel where it has plenty of room to grow to maturity; it should not require pruning except to remove dead or damaged wood. Mountain laurels are slow growing, 4-8 feet over 10 years; this contributes to their irregular habit, creating an elegant, natural specimen.
As a member of the heath family, which includes rhododendron, mountain laurel requires well-drained, rich, acidic soil. Attempt to replicate these conditions and your plant should thrive. Your pH should be between 5.0-5.5, but if your reading tops 6.5 your mountain laurel may not survive and certainly will not thrive. Laurels seem to perform best in raised beds, heavily amended with sphagnum peat moss or finely ground pine bark. To plant, dig a hole three times as wide as the root ball. Set the plant at or above the depth as it was growing in its container/root ball. Do not plant it more deeply or the roots will suffer. Mix a handful of superphosphate to the amended planting soil, then backfill the hole and water thoroughly. Add a 3-inch layer of pine bark mulch to keep the roots cool in hot weather and to retain soil moisture.
Mountain laurels require little care if they are sited and planted appropriately, but it is wise to monitor them, especially when the plants are young and not yet fully established. Check the plant often throughout the season and water before the soil dries out. Fertilize twice yearly with a fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants: once in the spring and half-strength in the autumn.
Selections of Mountain Laurel
Not sure which mountain laurel to choose? Consider each of these beauties, or come on in to see new cultivars of these favorite shrubs!
- Alpine Pink – Rich pink buds open to medium pink with a white throat.
- Carousel – Starburst pattern inside the corolla. Good growth.
- Hearts of Fire – Red buds open to a deep pink flower.
- Nipmuck – Intense red buds open cream white to light pink with the back of the corolla is dark pink.
- Olympic Fire – Large deep red buds open to pink flowers.
- Pinwheel – Maroon flowers edged in white with a cinnamon-maroon band that almost fills the center of the corolla.
- Snowdrift – Compact, mounded plant with pure white flowers.
- Elf – White flowers on a dwarf plant.