native mountain laurel
photograph by Jill Lang

It’s like the mountain laurel blooms couldn’t take it any longer. Like they’d watched those tentative wildflowers push through the leaves, spackling the woods with pinpricks of color, and the mountain laurel all got together along the ridge, the creek, the meadow, and decided at once: Let’s show ’em how it’s done.

So their blooms spread like wildfire, flames of pink and white lighting up the woods in a showy, mad rush of serious color: Kalmia latifolia. As happy along a stream as in a sunny glade, it will tolerate rocky soil. It can handle ridge-scouring winds. It’s an accommodating shrub.

It might look like rhododendron, but mountain laurel blooms first and relishes the sun, unlike its deep-woods-loving flowering cousin.

Mountain laurel is a kissing cousin to rhododendron, but it’s easy to tell them apart. Rhododendron leaves are robust and rounded, while the leaves of mountain laurel are smaller, more slender, with a slight point to the tip. Rhododendron blooms in clusters of flowers, while the blossoms of mountain laurel are more cup-shaped. The stamens of mountain laurel flowers are bent like a bow, the tips tucked into tiny pockets in the flower petals. When a pollinator trips springlike triggers, the stamens snap free, flinging pollen toward the interloper. Like they couldn’t wait another moment.

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Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.