Crowning Glory

Wednesday, May 10. Headed to Sugarloaf Mountain with two goals: get good pictures of pink lady’s slipper and mountain laurel. Failed both. Too late for the former, too early for the latter.



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.


Tuesday, May 16. Headed to Carderock with one goal: photograph mountain laurel. Success! Here they were actually a little past peak bloom, but still flowering profusely.


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.

Like our garden azaleas and rhododendrons, mountain laurel flowers on old growth (which you can see in the first photo). New growth is pictured here (with spent oak catkins drooped on the petioles).



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.

Mountain laurel ranges from Louisiana to Maine; it’s threatened in Florida, special concern in Maine, and exploitably vulnerable in New York. In Maryland it’s found in every county except Somerset.


Two More Adorable Ericas

We were hiking on a trail south of Akureyri when threatening weather turned us around. I promised Steve I wouldn’t take as many pictures on the way back, since we would be retracing our steps while trying not to get rained on. And almost as soon as I said that, I saw these flowers blooming on the hillside.


Harrimanella hypnoides
moss plant, moss bell-heather,
mossy mountain-heather
Icelandic: mosalyng


This tiny thing is actually a subshrub: though no more than four inches tall, it does have woody stems. In Iceland it’s a common plant in the mountains, but not in the lowlands. The species grows through much of the sub-arctic, including Russia, Fennoscandia, Greenland, Canada as far west as the Northwest Territories, and in the US in New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. It’s threatened in the latter two states.

Some sources claim Harrimanella to be a monotypic genus, but a very similar looking plant formerly known as either Andromeda stellariana or Cassiope stellariana is now called Harrimanella stellariana. That plant is found in northern North America where the other species isn’t: British Columbia, Yukon, Alaska, and Washington. H. hypnoides likes altitude: the excellent Finnish website NatureGate (luontoportti) claims that it shares the record for highest-growing vascular plant in Finland, having been found on top of Halti at 4,478 feet.


Click on these pictures to get a sense of how small the plants are. The gray-green stuff nearby is lichen, and that’s a 77 millimeter lens cap in the second photo. The flowers are a little under a quarter-inch wide. I was able to shoot at this angle because the trail was going through a little hollow, and the ground where the plants were growing was about chest-high.

Kalmia procumbens
(formerly Loiseleuria procumbens)
trailing azalea, alpine azalea
Icelandic: sauðamergur

This species is a cousin to the mid-Atlantic’s mountain laurel (K. latifolia), but much, much shorter, growing no taller than four or five inches. Its range is similar to moss plant’s, except that it grows further south in Eruope and further west in North America. It’s listed as sensitive in Washington, threatened in Maine and New Hampshire, and endangered in New York. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site claims that it’s common above tree line on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

What’s Green Now? Mountain Laurel


Kalmia latifolia; Ericaceae

Not much to look at now, but in this season of gray and brown, I’ll take what I can get.  Mountain laurel is a close relative of the familiar garden plants rhododendron and azalea. In the wild it can get to ten feet in height, with a rambling, open form and a tendency to grow in thickets.  The ones I’ve seen in the mid-Atlantic piedmont tend to be sparsely clad with leaves.


Here’s what we can look forward to, starting about mid-May:


Lots of detailed information about mountain laurel.