Diggin’ In: Look beyond azalea shrubs, consider mountain laurel

May 9, 2016

If you are looking for a spring-flowering shrub beyond the typical azaleas, consider native mountain laurel.

"Mountain laurel is a beautiful native flowering shrub well used as an ornamental or shrub border," says Helen Hamilton, past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, and retired biology teacher living in Williamsburg, Va. Learn more about the native plant society at

Small and multi-stemmed, mountain laurel grows six to eight feet tall and wide, with evergreen, glossy leaves that change from light green to dark to purple throughout the year. The plant provides beneficial hiding places for wildlife during winter, Hamilton continues.

Mountain laurel, scientifically called Kalmia latifolia, blooms April through June, producing star-shaped buds in rounded clusters, followed by white to pink flowers. The center of each flower features a red ring around the white style with green stigma; this is the female part of the flower that does not mature until the pollen disperses, continues Hamilton. The male part is dark anthers on 10 arched filaments that are tucked into pouches on the flower.

"When a large bee or other visitor lands in the flower, seeking the nectar deep in the center, the filaments are bent under the weight of the insect, and the anthers are jarred loose, dumping pollen on the insect’s body," says Hamilton. That insect then deposits the pollen on other flowers as it feeds. If the stigma is receptive, the flower is ready to produce seed.

"It’s easy to tell if a flower has been pollinated — just look for the discharged stamens."

Mountain laurel is a member of the Heath family, and loves acidic soils, well-drained soils and part shade – similar to azaleas and rhododendrons. The shrub prefers morning shade, and greatly dislikes excessive sun as well as deep shade.

"With the right growing conditions, mountain laurel is a slow-growing low-maintenance plant that tolerates drought," says Hamilton.

"The plant furnishes nectar for bees and butterflies in the spring and fruit and seeds for birds and other wildlife in the fall. Many cultivars are available in the nursery trade with intense bud and flower colors, and dwarf sizes."

Mountain laurel grows in every county in Virginia, and ranges throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Huge patches of the plant form in the Appalachian Mountains on high, rocky hillsides.

Mountain Laurel is host plant for the caterpillars of the laurel sphinx moth. Deer usually leave the plant alone, according to Hamilton.


Mourning cloak, or Nymphalis antiopa, is often the first butterfly seen in early spring as it emerges from winter hibernation in tree holes or under loose bark, according to Hamilton. It has an inch-long body and two- to four-inch dark wings that are fringed with a rough scalloped edge in creamy white.

"Nothing else looks like this big butterfly," she says.

The name "mourning cloak" may come from the purple-black coloring of the wings. When at rest or in hibernation the wings are folded together and predators can see only the drab blackish brown underside.

The butterflies feed on rotting fruit, flower nectar and tree sap, especially oak trees. Walking upside down the tree, they drink from holes created by woodpeckers or from wounds in the bark, Hamilton explains.

Mating occurs early in spring. Females lay 30 to 50 eggs, encircling twigs of a host tree or shrub, preferring willows, hackberry, cottonwood, paper birch, and American elm. Adults emerge in early summer, June or July, occasionally feeding on flower nectar. They thrive anywhere in North America and central Mexico where there are host plants, including woods, parks and suburbs.

During summer heat, the butterflies become inactive, and are seen again in early fall to feed and store fat for winter.

As eggs, caterpillars and adults, the butterflies are food for many other creatures, according to Hamilton.

"Even so, adults can live almost a year, making them the longest-lived butterflies," she says.



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