It’s Mountain Laurel Season

     It’s early June and peak season for enjoying mountain laurel in the Shenandoah Valley.  This is the time of year when ornate blossoms adorn these hardy evergreen bushes that thrive on the Valley’s rocky slopes and forested hillsides.

     For about a week now, I have been enjoying the mountain laurel flowers blooming in the forest near our home.  And over the weekend I had the chance to spend many hours among mountain laurel, as my husband, our son, his friend, and I hiked in the Shenandoah National Park.  The mountain laurel’s white blossoms dotted single shrubs here and there, and formed a profusion of white in other spots where large numbers of the shrub grew close together.  And now and then, at the higher altitudes, it seemed, some of the even prettier pink mountain laurel flowers bloomed.

     The blossom of the mountain laurel is truly something to see.  Its complex structure and dainty appearance are a delight to behold.  The flowers ”are shaped like upside-down ballerina tutus, with the petals fused together,” writes Jennifer Frick-Ruppert in Mountain Nature:  A Seasonal Natural History of the Southern Appalachians.  I also like the rest of her description:

“Each of the 10 pollen-bearing stamens arches outward and anchors its tip inside the rim of the flower in a tiny pocket until the pollen has matured.  Then, when an insect lands on the flower and touches the stamen filament, its tip pops loose from the flower, snaps over, and smacks the insect on the back, dusting it with pollen.  Once tripped, the stamens remain curled. 

“When the insect visits another flower and brushes against the female stigma, it transfers its load of pollen.  You can imitate the insect by sticking your finger into the flower of a mountain laurel.  Poke the spring-loaded filament and it should snap forward to leave a yellow dusting of pollen on your fingernail.  If you play this game, however, finish it by transferring pollen to another flower’s stigma.  If the flower is on another plant, the likelihood of successful seed set is greater.”

     I just went outside and tried Frick-Ruppert’s experiment.  The results were not quite as dramatic as she described, but the thread-like stamens did break loose from their hold on the inside edge of the flower and then curl a bit.  The amount of pollen I found on my finger, however, appeared negligible.

     Despite the beauty of its flowers, the mountain laurel is quite poisonous.  Everything about it, including the flowers, is toxic to deer and other animals.  But the mountain laurel’s wood has proved valuable for generations in the making of furniture.   One of the plant’s names, Spoonwood, comes from the Native Americans’ use of the wood to make spoons. 

     Although mountain laurel’s usual name suggests it is a mountain plant, it also thrives in non-mountainous areas, as long as the soil is acidic.  Mountain laurel ranges from southern Maine to northern Florida and grows as far west as Indiana and Louisiana.  Connecticut and Pennsylvania have chosen it as their state flower.–April Moore

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2 Responses to “It’s Mountain Laurel Season”

  1. Diane Artz Furlong Says:

    It has been a long time since I’ve seen mountain laurel. My husband gave me a sprig last week he’d forgotten he was saving for me. It was all mashed and dried out but still, it brought to mind the lovely, ethreral beauty of the shrubs in the mountains.

  2. Joan Brundage Says:

    Oh, yes, the beautiful Mountain Laurels!! I remember them well when I lived in the Hudson Valley in New York state and loved to hike among them in the Spring! Thanks, April, for helping me remember my happy memories!

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