Mountain Laurel

I am a firm believer in the notion that if something pops up on your personal radar more than once in a week, then it is time to take notice. Call me superstitious but I think there is probably a reason that someone or something is trying to get your attention. Case in point, just this last week I received an email from a colleague down south looking for Kalmia polifolia or bog laurel. I did not think that there was any reason to it and just tried to help him find the plant.

Grandma's farm in PA

Thursday afternoon, we loaded up our Honda Pilot (ever watched a couple and four kids pile into an SUV with all of their gear and bikes – my wife, Carrie, should win an award for car packing…) and headed down to Pennsylvania for a family get together. Carrie’s family organizes a 3.5 mile running race every Father’s Day weekend. We do not miss the weekend as the race is named in honor of her late father, Irv (who competed in the Boston Marathon in the late 60’s and early 70’s when it was a much smaller race and running was an extreme sport). The race is always on Saturday and then the family gets together for a picnic and games on Saturday afternoon. Then on Sunday morning, I usually wake up before everybody else in the house and go for a run in the mountains with Irv’s old running club, Oregon East. The name of the running club comes from the University of Oregon which had an awesome program in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

Oregon East Run

We met at a local quick-stop and then traveled as a group up into the mountains of central Pennsylvania. We ended up running a route through the Tioga State Forest which summits at the High Knob Overlook. I was a bit disappointed at the beginning of the run because all along the road I saw mostly Russian olive and Japanese barberry, both invasive plants. The vegetation began to change as we ascended the mountains. Right near the very top at the High Knob summit, the forest edges were beautiful because of the Kalmia latifolia in flower. I have not thought about mountain laurel much since moving to Maine so the notion that Kalmia would emerge twice in one week makes me want to take notice.

Kalmia latifolia 'Snowdrift'

It has been my experience that most people shy away from growing mountain laurel because it has a reputation of being somewhat finicky. I think they are underused and the floral display is well worth the effort. We have a Rhododendron Garden at Coastal Maine Botanical Garden that would be the perfect spot to add more mountain laurel. The garden has dappled sun, is on a well-drained slope, and the soil is extremely acidic. These are the conditions you need for both Kalmia and Rhododendron to thrive. Richard Jaynes is the founder of Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut and is renowned for his breeding work with Kalmia latifolia. I am going through their catalog now to see which plants we should add this fall.

Kalmia from Broken Arrow Nursery

Do you have mountain laurel in your garden? Have you had to go to great lengths to make it survive and thrive?


Photos: Rodney Eason, Larry Ryan,,

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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.
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  1. Carla Stanley on June 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    My neighbor of six years ago planted a mountain laurel on her property which is as you described, dappled sun and acidic soil. She has since moved away and two other homeowners who completely ignored the plant have come and gone. Just yesterday I decided to enjoy some blooms as they are prolific on the plant. So beautiful.

  2. Jen on June 18, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    Good to know about the acid soil.
    I planted a pinkish red mountain laurel on a northeast slope next to my house about 6 years ago, and while it hasn’t perished, it hasn’t exactly thrived, either.
    I will test the the pH level of the soil and amend if needs be.
    It does have beautiful flowers, though, even if it doesn’t seem to grow much bigger.

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