Connecticut Garden Journal: Mountain Laurel
If you're looking for a good, native, evergreen shrub that's an alternative or compliment to your rhododendrons, don't forget the state flower, the mountain laurel or Kalmia latifolia.
Growing up in Waterbury, I remember spending hours in the mountain laurel groves in my grandfather's woods playing with friends and cousins. The gnarly branches created great spaces for crawling into the center of the grove and finding a secret hiding place.
If you think mountain laurel are just plain evergreen shrubs, check out some of the newer varieties. While the wild species has fragrant, May and June blooming pale pink or white flowers, newer varieties are more colorful. 'Firecracker' features bright red flower buds that open to pink. It has disease resistant, dark green foliage and stands 5- to 7-feet tall. 'Keepsake' has raspberry-red flower buds that open to a purplish burgundy color with bluish-green leaves. 'Elf' and 'Tinkerbell' are dwarf varieties growing 3- to 5- feet tall and wide with little leaves, pink buds and white flowers.
Mountain laurel are hardy to zone 5 and grow best in part shade on slightly acidic soils. You often see them growing along roadsides or under power lines. They're a good understory shrub in open, well-drained but moist, deciduous forests of oak and maple. Most mountain laurels grow 5- to 10-feet tall. They're slow growers and the broadleaf, evergreen leaves provide interest year round. My mother would often cut some branches in winter for flower arrangements. Grow them in groups with rhododendron, azalea, pieris and other broadleaf evergreens. Just remember, though, all parts of mountain laurel shrubs are toxic when eaten.