Hit the trail to experience the wicked beauty of mountain laurel

Posted on: June 20, 2018 | Bob Frye | Comments

Mountain laurel is a shrub.

Mountain laurel is in bloom across the eastern United States.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

Maybe you’ve had one of those relationships, or even just one of those dates.

You know, toxic.

The person across the dinner table is sure enough pretty or handsome. They’re alluring, inviting and even smell good, too.

But beneath it all they’re pure poison.

So it is with mountain laurel.

It’s one of the most glorious wildflowers of summer, both for the timing of its blooms – they’re at or near peak right now across most of its range – and its hardscrabble, gritty will.

But it’s best to look rather than touch.

A shrub, mountain laurel stands five to 10 feet tall usually, though in southern climates it can hit 40. It’s got dark green, shiny, leathery leaves. They’re offset by clusters of delicate white and pink flowers.

You can find it in lots of places across the eastern United States. According to the U.S. Forest Service, it’s “common in the Appalachian Mountains, plateaus, piedmont, and coastal plains from southeast Maine to the Florida panhandle, west to Louisiana, and north through southern Indiana to southern Quebec.”

Two states, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, count it their official state flower. Many more market hiking trails that feature it, given its popularity with outdoor folks.

And with good reason.

When it gets especially abundant — think places like Kings Gap Environmental Education Center in Pennsylvania, or Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, for example – its flowers paint entire landscapes.

It’s a beautiful sight of the season, one I never want to miss.

Mountain laurel grows on mountains.

Mountain laurel flowers are delicately colored.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures

And that’s especially true when you consider where these plants not only endure, but thrive.

They’ll take the suburbs, if moved there. But typically, on its own, laurel clings to life in the margins, notably the thin soils common to mountains. Find a rocky ridge and there’s probably laurel on it.

That’s truer now than ever, too.

Mountain laurel has done exceedingly well over the last century, says the Forest Service. Three factors, among others, account for much of that.

The loss of the American chestnut tree to blight opened the forest canopy, as did oak deforestation caused by gypsy moths. Add to that fire suppression – a hallmark of forest management that’s slowly going away – and quick-growing mountain laurel spread across the landscape.

Whatever the case, there’s something really cool about it.

It just seems to like wilder places. To me, that’s always made it companion to adventure, whether hiking, backpacking or camping.

But just don’t mess with it.

It grows in dense patches, for starters. Its branches and roots twist and turn and bend and wander like the knuckly, gnarled, arthritic fingers of a hunchbacked witch in a children’s cartoon.

“That characteristic plus the shiny smooth appearance of large patches earned them the names ‘laurel hell’ and ‘laurel slick’ from early settlers,” says the Virginia Native Plant Society.

You don’t want to blaze a trail through the stuff, that’s for sure.

Then there’s its toxicity. From leaf to stem to branch, mountain laurel is poisonous in all its forms.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it can even be fatal to both humans and some animals.

The way it takes victims out isn’t overly pleasant either.

Consume it in high enough quantities and your lips, mouth and throat burn. Nausea and vomiting, drowsiness, convulsions, and increasingly paralysis follow. Then comes coma and death.

“Children have been poisoned by merely sucking on the flowers of this plant. Even honey made from mountain laurel pollen is toxic,” the Department of Agriculture adds.

So yeah, not exactly marriage material.

But that’s OK. Who goes to the woods to eat it anyway?

Mountain laurel — kalmia latifolia to the scientifically inclined — is plenty good just to admire.

And the time to do it is right now. The woods are alive with its color.

So lace up those hiking boots, strap on that pack, and wander among the mountain laurel, the lovely but deceptively wicked hallmark of Eastern forests.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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