Run, don’t walk! Put on your hiking shoes and head up any Appalachian mountain trail (right now!) in May and June and you will be rewarded with gorgeous Mountain Laurel blooms. This evergreen shrub can put on a spectacular display, since it varies in height from 3 to 15 feet and forms thick colonies in the understory or along the tops of ridges.
Fragrant clusters of showy flowers borne at the top of the plant can be white to pale pink. Each round flower is about an inch in diameter; the petals are fused together to form a dainty “pinwheel”; in the pink variety it is splashed with red detail. Even the balloon-like buds are a sight to behold!
Interestingly, all parts of this shrub are poisonous to cattle and humans, right down to the pollen and nectar! Honey made from the flowers can cause heart arrhythmia and convulsions and has been known throughout history as “mad honey”. Other common names for this shrub suggest the known toxicity: sheep laurel and lambkill.
Like flame azalea or wild blueberry, mountain laurel is a member of the Heath family and prefers acid soils. It is highly coveted as an addition to the home garden, but evidently its site requirements can be somewhat exacting. Make sure to amend the soil appropriately if you decide to plant this native shrub!
If you are a regular hiker, be aware that Mountain Laurel blooms at different times depending on elevation. It is in full and glorious bloom on the Gateway Trail on Brush Mountain this week (May 25). (There are acres of it about half-way up the trail –elevation 2300 feet.) However, at the top of Salt Pond Mountain (4300 feet) the shrub is not in bloom yet, and probably won’t open for another two weeks.