June Flowering Shrub Spotlight : Our Native Mountain Laurel, Kalmia Latifolia

June 15th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia, ‘Pink Charm’) in a naturalistic planting between boulders…

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’ – Beautiful Geometric Blossoms

Kalmia latifolia ‘Pink Charm’ with companion plantings in ledge

North American native mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, flowering in June

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.

Kalmia latifolia on a dark winter day

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.


Kalmia latifolia, ‘Pink Charm’, in a rock garden setting at Ferncliff


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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Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year…

April 24th, 2009 § Comments Off on Designing for early spring garden interest: the first act in a dramatic garden year… § permalink


spring-looking-down-the-stone-stepsEarly Spring Entry Garden

Designing and planting a garden for all seasons reminds me a bit of theater. From the moment an audience stands at the entry of a garden, an opportunity exists. When guests emerge from their cars, or step inside a gate, what will they first notice? In early spring, perhaps the delicate scent of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ will lure them forward as they open the door, or the small, starry- blue blossoms of chionodoxa will greet them alongside a stone walkway. The bright colors of spring bulbs and the perfume of fragrant shrubs enliven a washed out winter landscape and awaken dormant senses.  Taking advantage of the very early days of spring in your garden design will lift your spirits and prolong the pleasures of the growing season.

From the creamy whites and cool blues of galanthus and muscari to the warm golds and peaches of eranthis and narcissus, spring bulbs are the first notes of music in the garden theater. When planned successfully, these early players will slowly fade back as the other acts roll out and fill in the story. Companion plants such as huechera, hosta, Alchemilla mollis, galium and Artemisia ‘silver mound’, (to name a few stalwarts), gradually nudge-out the spring bulbs as they take over the garden stage. Ideally, a complex tapestry of perennial foliage and flowers will camouflage yellowing bulbs as they die back for the year. Plan your plantings accordingly, leaving space for bulbs between perennials, and make note of your plans in your fall calendar.  Early spring photos can be a help later as well. When you return to the garden to plant spring flowering bulbs in fall, your notes and photos from spring will serve as your guide.

When choosing from amongst the vast array of flowering trees and shrubs for your garden, it is important to consider those varieties blooming very early as well as those extending very late in the garden year. The star players in your garden will shine best when each is given a moment of design consideration all its own, in addition to thoughts about how the plant will play in scenes created with other members of the garden cast. Try to select woody plants with staggering bloom dates for an uninterrupted show. And keep in mind that a carefully chosen cast of characters will provide not only drama when blooming, but will add interest and support to your garden story though out the year. Try to always consider foliage, a season-long contributor, in your choices.  And remember that many shrubs, will provide a full year’s performance, with structure, blossoms, lush foliage, autumn color and even winter fruit.

By the time many of the early blooming shrubs make it to local garden centers, they have faded out and become unlikely candidates for sale.  Hamamelis vernalis, (the spring witch hazel), Fothergilla gardenii, and Lindera benzoin, (spice bush), are three oft-overlooked early blooming shrub varieties for the garden.  All three of these garden-worthy plants provide early spring blossoms, structural interest, contrast, and spectacular autumn foliage. Early blooming trees for the garden, such as amelanchier, Cornus alternifolia, (pagoda dogwood), and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), and the show-stopping Cercis canadensis,(eastern redbud), are some beautifully structured, smaller-sized tree choices for gardens. Amelanchier and cornus are valued for both bloom and later, vivid red and orange fall foliage and fruit. The plum-hued buds of Cercis candensis are followed by heart shaped leaves; dark green in summer and then turning a lovely golden hue in autumn.  In addition, all these shrubs and trees are natives to north America, making them environmentally sound choices for the landscape as well as beautiful additions to the garden.

A well designed garden will provide a steady performance, with early scenes seamlessly flowing into later acts.  Successful spring planting involves the big picture.  Carefully selected plants will provide a solid structure and a season-less stage for poetic vignettes of spring bulbs and vibrant perennial dramas through out the year. I am continually amazed by the design possibilities and endless combinations I discover when visiting friends gardens.  Take the time to visit public and private gardens in early spring, and make notes about what you see.  Add some new characters to your cast to extend your seasonal show, and enjoy the pleasures of your garden-theater throughout the year.


early-spring-walkwayPlantings pictured, (top and bottom photographs):

Stone steps and an entry walkway are lined with Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ , Juniperus squamata,’Holger’, Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Fothergilla gardenii, and Acer palmatum x dissectum “Seiryu”. These shrubs and trees are complimented by an under-planting of various bulbs, including muscari, galanthus and narcissus and companion perennials such as heuchera, sedum, Cerastium t, sanguinaria and Phlox divaricata among others.

Along the walkway, emerging perennials are edged by a wide blue swath of ajuga.

Article, design and photos: ⓒ 2009 Michaela – The Gardener’s Eden

all stonework: Dan Snow


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