By: Jackie Carroll
Grown for its showy late spring and summer flowers and attractive, evergreen foliage, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia, USDA zones 5 through 9) is a colorful asset to borders and foundation plantings, and it looks fantastic in mass plantings. It’s sometimes called a calico bush because the pink or white flowers usually have dark pink or maroon markings. Native to the Eastern U.S., you can often find mountain laurel growing wild among native azaleas and rhododendrons.
Mountain Laurel Information
You’ll find many lovely cultivars of mountain laurel to choose from, thanks in large part to Dr. Richard A. Jaynes of Hamden, Connecticut. Here are just a few of his enticing creations:
- ‘Elf’ is a dwarf that grows 3 feet (1 m.) tall with pale pink or white blossoms.
- ‘Heart of Fire’ has deep red buds that open to pink flowers with dark pink edges on a five-foot (1.5 m.) shrub.
- ‘Raspberry Glow’ grows up to six feet (1.8 m.) tall. The burgundy buds open to raspberry-pink flowers that keep their color when grown in shade.
- ‘Carol’ forms a low, rounded mound of dark green foliage. The buds are red and the flowers are bright white.
- ‘Snowdrift’ has white blooms with a dab of red in the center. It grows about 4 feet (1.2 m.) tall.
How to Grow a Mountain Laurel
Mountain laurel looks best when grown in dappled sunlight, but it also grows well in full sun or partial shade. Avoid locations with full sun in combination with reflected light from heat-reflecting southern or southwestern walls. Partial shade is best in hot, southern climates. In deep shade the flowers lose their bright colors and may develop leaf spot.
If azaleas and rhododendrons grow well in the area, mountain laurel will thrive. The shrubs need moist but well-drained acidic soil. They won’t grow well in clay soil. It’s important not to give the shrubs too much fertilizer, so don’t plant them in or near lawns fed with high-nitrogen products.
Care of Mountain Laurel
Amend the soil with compost when planting mountain laurels. If you have several shrubs, amend the entire bed. Add the compost to the fill dirt if you are only planting one or two shrubs. When adding organic matter to the fill dirt, dig the hole as deep as the root ball and three times as wide so the shrub will have plenty of organic soil where it can spread its roots.
Mountain laurel has a shallow root system and needs watering more often than most shrubs. New plantings need 2 inches (5 cm.) of water each week for the first season. The average sprinkler system delivers about an inch (2.5 cm.) of water per hour, so you’ll need to run the system two hours. Use organic mulch, such as pine needles or shredded bark, to help the soil hold moisture between waterings.
These shrubs don’t need a lot of fertilizer, and may bloom poorly if you apply too much. Use a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants mixed at one-quarter strength once a year in spring. You can also add a thin layer of compost to the soil for additional nutrients and to add to the organic matter of the soil.
Mountain laurel begins forming the buds for next year’s flowers soon after the flowers fade. Prune the shrub right after flowering so that you don’t remove the new buds. Cut off faded flowers promptly so the shrub can focus its energy on growth rather than seed development.
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Read more about Mountain Laurel
Kalmia latifolia, commonly called mountain laurel,  calico-bush,  or spoonwood,  is a broadleaved evergreen shrub in the heather family, Ericaceae, that is native to the eastern United States. Its range stretches from southern Maine south to northern Florida, and west to Indiana and Louisiana. Mountain laurel is the state flower of Connecticut and Pennsylvania. It is the namesake of Laurel County in Kentucky, the city of Laurel, Mississippi, and the Laurel Highlands in southwestern Pennsylvania.
How to Grow: Mountain Laurel
full sun, part sun, part shade
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Spring in colors such as white, pink, red and bi colors
Mature Height x Spread
5 to 12 feet x 5 to 6 feet
attracts beneficial, drought tolerant, native
Mountain laurel is a broad leaf evergreen that grows and flowers well in full sun to part shade, making it a versatile shrub in the landscape. The broad, dark green leaves provide interest all year long. In spring clusters of cup-shaped flowers open in shade of white, pink and red. It’s a favorite of bees and butterflies. The shrub grows naturally in the filtered light under tall deciduous trees such as oak and maple, especially near a wet, swampy area. I remember playing among mountain laurel groves as a child in Connecticut. It flowers best, though, with more sun in an open landscape, but the leaves may turn a yellow-green color in full sun.
When, Where and How to Plant
Mountain Laurel is hardy to zone 5. In colder areas of New England, it will need to be protected in winter with burlap barriers to block the winter wind. Grow mountain laurel plants purchased from your local garden center. Look for the hardiest varieties for cold areas. Plant shrubs from spring, after all danger of frost has passed, to summer in well drained, moist, acidic, cool soils. Avoid windy areas, if possible. Space plants 4 to 6 feet apart.
Keep young shrubs well watered. Keep the soil evenly moist and acidic with a layer of wood chips or evergreen bark mulch. Fertilize mountain laurel in spring with a plant food for acidic-loving plants such as you’d use for rhododendrons.
Regional Advice and Care
Mountain laurel will get spindly, develop leaf spots and have few flowers if grown in too much shade. Look for leaf spot resistant varieties if growing under these conditions. It also doesn’t grow well in poorly drained soils. It’s a slow grower that should only be pruned to shape the plant in spring after flowering. Dead, diseased and broken branches can be taken out at any time. Mountain laurel doesn’t have many pest problems.
Companion Planting and Design
Grow mountain laurel in a part shade location as a foundation plant, out of direct winds. Grow mountain laurel with other broadleaf evergreens, such as rhododendrons and pieris. Plant mountain laurel in a woodland setting under tall deciduous trees or at the forest’s edge.
Breeders at the University of Connecticut have created many varieties of mountain laurel suited for New England. ‘Olympic Fire’ is an older variety with reddish-pink flower buds and waxy leaf spot resistant foliage. ‘Pink Surprise’ has pink flowers with reddish-purple new foliage growth in spring on an open plant habit. ‘Raspberry Glow’ features burgundy-red flower buds that open to pink. It develops good flower color even in shade. ‘Snowdrift’ has pure white flowers with dark green, leathery leaves. ‘Elf’ is a compact variety only growing 3 to 5 feet tall with pink, changing to white, colored flowers.
How to Grow Mountain Laurel
These shade lovers produce lovely clusters of pink or white flowers with stunning purple markings throughout the blooms. The plant itself is relatively easy to grow in most climates, particularly throughout North America. While they can be a tad particular about its soil needs, we won’t hold that against them. Mountain laurel is overall a great, beautiful blooming shrub, perfect for mass plantings in a shady spot in your garden or foundation plantings.
You can plant your new shrubs from spring (after all danger of frost has safely passed) through summer. Plant them in cool soil that is both moist and well-draining. Also, pay close attention to the pH of the soil it should be quite acidic. Space the shrubs 4 to 6 feet apart when planting. Mountain laurels prefer partial shade but will also tolerate full sun. Do be sure to avoid excessively windy areas, mainly if you live in the north.
When planting, try not to plant them too deeply and be sure the point where the shrub’s trunk meets its roots is not buried, as this could cause the plant to suffer from rot (which would most likely lead to its death).
While they are still but wee youngins,’ keep the shrubs well-watered, and the soil moist and acidic. Use a layer of wood chips or evergreen bark mulch to keep the soil acidic. Fertilizer or plant food can also help these little shrubs grow in their first stage of life. Use a fertilizer that is formulated specifically for acid-loving shrubs – like rhododendron food.
Once the flowers on your mountain laurel have stopped blooming, remove the clusters immediately. Doing so will help keep your shrub full.
These shrubs do love partial shade however, try to avoid deep shade, as this can reduce its flowering and cause unsightly leaf spots. If you plan on planting your shrub in full sun, be aware it’s leaves may turn a bit yellowish.
Once you have yourself an established plant, keep the soil moist but not soggy.
You can remove your mountain laurel’s dead or broken branches at any time., but keep the shape pruning to a minimum until springtime, particularly just after blooming has finished. 
Mountain Laurel Physical Description
Mountain Laurel will grow up to 15′-20′ (5-7 m) tall depending on conditions.
Mountain Laurel can resemble a round bush/shrub, or a small tree depending on where it is grown. Technically Mountain Laurel is a shrub, and will grow foliage where ever sunlight is available. So, it out in the open in full sun, you can expect a more rounded appearance of foliage.
If grown under a dense canopy of trees, it would grow more like a small ornamental tree. That is because the main sunlight available will be from the top. So it will grow its leaves to catch the dappled sunlight from above.
Mountain laurel will grow a very crooked/gnarly, and interesting trunk. It will have erratic branching and may have a strange shape. The bark is veined, with outer layers slightly peeling.
Note the crooked, erratic trunk shape of this mature specimen of Mountain Laurel
Individual leaves of Mountain Laurel are lance-shaped, or slightly oblong/oval about 1″ wide (2.5 cm) by 2-3″ long (5-7 cm), with a point/tip at the end. The edges/margins will be smooth. Leaves have a waxy feel to them. They are quite stout, resisting tearing. This is an evergreen, so the leaves will stay year round. The color is generally a dark green (if shaded), or more pale/yellow green if in full sun or new growth.
Mountain Laurel Flower
Flowers of Mountain Laurel will appear in clusters that are about 3-6″ diameter (7-15 cm). The clusters will grow from the center of a leaf cluster.
The color of individual blooms will be pink to white. Often the buds are pink, turning white when they open up. There will be approximately six petals per flower. In the wild, the petals will be white with dark red markings in the middle and margins. After blooming, nutlets will form that contain dozens of tiny seeds when opened. These can be collected throughout the winter if one wishes to propagate the plant further.
The root system of Mountain Laurel is quite shallow. The plant evolved to cling to even the barest of rock outcroppings with minimal soil available.
Mountain Laurel growing from a rock crevice. Appalachian Mountains, Pennsylvania. More mountain Laurel Seedlings are shown at the bottom of this picture.
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