Not much is prettier than Penn’s Woods in mid-June, when the mountain laurel is at concert pitch. With colors ranging from bunny-tail white to seashell pink, Kalmia latifolia has earned, with eye appeal alone, its designation as our state flower.
Seriously. That’s about all it has going for it.
Laurel—aka spoonwood (so named because the native peoples used it to make spoons), calico-bush, sheep laurel, and lambkill—is a member of the Ericaceae family. Its relatives include huckleberries, blueberries, azaleas, cranberries, and rhododendron. It is native to the eastern United States, with a range extending from Maine to Florida, and lives as far west as Indiana and Louisiana. It prefers acidic soil—something in the 4.5 to 5.5 pH range—and, at least around here, can grow as tall as six or eight feet. It makes thickets so dense you can barely push your way through without a lot of bloodshed; in other areas the bushes have coyly spaced themselves nicely so you can walk about and properly appreciate the blooms.
Mountain laurel’s gnarly, knobby branches are not particularly useful as a building material, though some clever carpenters have found them to be just the thing for crafting handrails. You could also probably make some sort of interesting wall hook or rack, as the plant has a lot of sharp, pointy aspects to it. Nothing eats laurel. It is, in fact, poisonous to horses, goats, cattle, deer, monkeys, and us.
I’ve been trying for a while to coax a pasture out of an area that until recently was about 75 percent laurel. I can tell you that, along with those aforementioned sharp, pointy exterior parts, laurel has a tough, determined root structure that weaves itself underground like macramé and makes it very difficult to extract the plant from the earth. You cut the main stem as close as you can to the ground and then yank and curse and yank some more. You have to work at it for a bit, but you are finally, triumphantly, rewarded with a stump of plant appended to a twisted string of fibrous root two or three feet long, this after you’ve been pulling with all your might, and have had our delightful state flower suddenly free itself from its hidden attachments. Wham! You’re on the ground, nearly impaled by the nearby laurel punji sticks remaining from a previous removal effort, but—ha!—another one bites the dust! This same kind of fun can be had trying to clear a horse or mountain bike trail in a laurel-infested area.
You cannot, of course, go out into the state forest or onto someone else’s property and steal or whack down Kalmia latifolia, but, contrary to popular opinion, there are no legal restrictions on the cultivation or demolition of mountain laurel.
I’m really glad about the latter.