Monday, May 15. Headed to Rachel Carson Conservation Park with three goals: locate and photograph large twayblade; get good pictures of spotted wintergreen and mountain laurel. Failed to find the twayblade, too early for the spotted wintergreen, and the mountain laurels were still in bud, with only a few individual flowers open.
There’s something about the flowers of plants in the Ericaceae (heath family) that I find especially compelling, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Actually it isn’t just the flowers, because I find the plants themselves intriguing and lovely.
Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is a multi-stemmed shrub that grows to 15 feet tall, maybe taller in the right conditions, but it doesn’t grow straight. The stems twist and curve, and you can see that habit in the patterns of the bark. It has a tendency to drop all but the uppermost leaves. When in bloom it looks to me like the plant is crowned in flowers.
Identifying mountain laurel is easy, because little else has that open, gnarled habit. The leaves are evergreen. Flowers are borne in crowded corymbs, and each flower has five petals fused into a tube, with ten stamens that initially stick in little folds in the petals. The color ranges from nearly white to deep pink, with a red ring in the throat.
Like other ericaceous plants, mountain laurel loves moist but well-drained, acidic soils. When you see it, you’ll often see other plants in the same family nearby. In Rachel Carson Conservation Park, it grows on a bald knob with pinxter azaleas, blueberries and deerberries (Vaccinium species), and spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). It’s also abundant on Sugarloaf Mountain, and on a few of the ridges near Carderock. There’s a section of the Cabin John Trail that I call Erica Alley, a rocky area with plenty of ericaceous species (and other neat plants, like rock polypody, ground pine, and firmosses), including dozens and dozens of mountain laurels, too, but in all the years I’ve been hiking there, I’ve never seen them bloom. I’ve never even seen buds on them.