One of the great native shrubs of North America, mountain laurel, (Kalmia latifolia), is also a beautiful and versatile garden plant. With nearly 100 cultivars ranging in size from the diminutive, (12″ high plants suitable for small spaces and rock gardens), to the imposing, (a grand beauty at the North Carolina Arboretum is reputed to stand 25 feet high), mountain laurels are useful in garden designs of any scale. Kalmia latifolia is a member of the heath family, and much like it’s cousins, rhododendron, azalea, and pieris, it prefers slightly acidic, sharply drained, hummus-rich soil. Mountain laurel exist naturally in both woodland settings and exposed rock ledges. The evergreen foliage of mountain laurel tends to be more durable in cold climates than many other members of the heath family. Most Kalmia cultivars are hardy in zones 4-8. The beautiful buds and flowers of mountain laurel, ranging in color and pattern from white to nearly red, reach their peak in June.
Kalmia latifolia ‘Pink Charm’ with companion plantings in ledge
Mountain laurel can be a useful addition to gardens of virtually any style, including rock gardens, Japanese zen and formal designs. However to my eye, laurel is particularly suited to naturalistic-style gardens in both urban and rural settings. Because laurels are native to North America, they tend to blend and blur the boundaries between man-made and natural environments in this part of the world. Kalmia latifolia is very useful in transitioning from a more formal garden to a woodland setting, (naturally occurring or designed and planted by human hands). When regularly pruned, 6-12′ stands of laurel lend sinewy line and structure to garden designs, and form elegant screens, loose hedges and quiet backdrops for outdoor rooms. In a city garden, a mountain laurel can be a cool,calming, evergreen reminder of the quiet forest; beautiful and soothing in combination with ferns, woodland flowers and moss. In a more rural setting, Kalmia latifolia links a garden to woodland surrounds, balancing more exotic plantings and keeping a design in context with the naturally occurring plants of North America.
One of the few reliably hardy, broad-leaf evergreens, Kalmia has much to offer in terms of variety. Beyond the lustrous green foliage and the curvaceous wood, mountain laurel cultivars possess some of the most fascinating blooms in all of nature. The geometric shapes of the flowers, in both bud and blossom, make mountain laurel a real stand-out in gardens. Names like “Kaleidoscope”, “Carousel”, “Pinwheel” and “Galaxy”, (all cultivars bred and introduced by the great horticulturalist Richard Jaynes), hint at the diverse flower patterns and colors developed by the creative breeders of this beautiful shrub.
Mountain laurels are quite striking when planted in combination with rocks, boulders, ledges and other natural and man-made stone features. When combining Kalmia latifolia with other plants, I like to take cues from nature, mixing this native plant with conifers such Tsuga, (hemlock), and deciduous shrubs providing contrasting autumn color, such as Clethera alnifolia, (sweet pepperbush), Hamamelis, (witch hazel), and Fothergilla, (witch alder). Perennials of all kinds work with laurel in partly sunny locations, and I am particularly fond of late blooming combinations, such as asters and lilies. In dappled shade, forest ledge natives, including Polystichum acrostichoides, (Christmas fern), Polygonatum, (Solomon’s seal), Hexastylis and Asarum canadense, (wild-gingers), all make good ground-level companions for Kalmia latifolia.
I continue to be surprised by how underutilized this native shrub remains in North American gardens. For form, foliage and colorful bloom, the genus Kalmia is a handsome and versatile design selection for many garden settings and styles.
For further information about Kalmia latifolia, see Kalmia: Mountain Laurel and Related Species by Richard A. Jaynes
Article and Photographs copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden
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