A SPRING FLOWERING GARDEN FAVORITE
Attractive clusters of flowers, bright foliage and uniform growth habit combine to make the Kalmia, latifolia, 'Mountain Laurel' an attractive spring flowering shrub. Modern hybridization has resulted in some outstanding new introductions. The showy individual flowers, which are in clusters, remind me of miniature parachutes, providing a nice colorful display in the spring garden.
The attractive flower clusters stand-upright above the leaves, providing quite a floral display. Each cluster will start with a couple flowers opening gradually until the entire cluster is in full bloom. Each individual flower has five outer points, but ten star-like points within the flower. Planted in the right location and given proper care the plants will flower prolifically. With minimal care, they tend to flower sparingly, but still merit a place in the landscape.
Most varieties only grow about 6 to 8 feet high, sometimes taller with age. However, in recent years new dwarf varieties have been introduced that only grow about 3 to 5 feet high with age. The leaves are about 3 to 4 inches long, smaller then most rhododendrons, and larger than most azaleas. They are a dark glossy to dull green, depending upon the variety. Plants generally have a rather rounded, uniform growth habit at a young age, but may stretch and become a bit leggy with age. However, this can be over-come by proper pruning.
LEARNING FROM THEIR NATURAL GROWING HABITAT
Kalmia's are native to the eastern part of the United States. The first time I saw them growing in their native habitat was in the 'Blue Mountains' of Virginia, where they are found growing under the canopy of the trees of that region. So by studying their natural growing habitat we can better understand where we should plant them in our own garden. First, we learn the over-head trees provide shade or at least part shade; Second, the soil was full of organic humus (leaf mold) and Third, the soil was well drained. So if we can somewhat duplicate these conditions in our own garden the Kalmia's should thrive for us.
We have four different varieties of kalmia planted in our garden. They are planted under a specimen Japanese maple and a couple of lilacs. They face to the east and are protected from the hot afternoon sun by a fence and the trees above. Additionally, they are planted amongst rhododendrons and azaleas, which I think are ideal, companion plants. Camellias, sarcococca, ferns, hostas and other semi-shade plants would also do well as companion plants to the kalmias.
Wow! Where does one start when talking about varieties? There are so many new spectacular varieties that really merit a place in ones garden. So I have narrowed it down to my favorite eight, but suggest you take a good look at them when they're in bloom, because you may like others even more. Here are my eight in alphabetical order:
'ELF' - Showy soft pink buds, opening to pure white flowers. Foliage is a medium green and resistant to leaf spot. Semi-dwarf plant, grows slowly in a compact mounded growth habit to about 3 feet.
'KEEPSAKE' - Soft red buds open to attractive burgundy flowers with distinctive white edges. Dark glossy green leaves are leaf spot resistant. Plants grow about 4 to 5 feet high.
'LITTLE LINDA' - As the name implies this is a dwarf variety, which only grows about 2 ½ to 3 feet high. Flower buds are red, opening to attractive pink blossoms. Nice dark glossy green, leaf spot resistant leaves.
'MINUET' - This is another dwarf variety to 2 ½ to 3 feet high. The flower buds are soft pink, opening to showy cinnamon red flowers with white centers and edges. Narrow leaves are dark glossy green.
'OLYMPIC FIRE' - Developed here in the Northwest, this variety is well known for its bright red buds and pink flowers, which fade to white with age. Wavy medium foliage is resistant to leaf spot. Plants are usually from 4 to 6 feet tall, sometimes taller with age.
'OSTBO RED' - Another Northwest variety, the red buds open to pink flowers. It likes a little more sun than most varieties. Wavy leaves are a bit smaller than some varieties and are resistant to leaf spot. Ultimate growth to about 4 or 5 feet.
'PEPPERMINT' - Looks a bit like peppermint candy! White flowers have attractive maroon streaks of pigment, that radiate out from the flower center to ten points. Flower buds are light pink. Ultimate height may be 4 to 6 feet high, over time.
'TIDDLYWINKS' - Bushy semi-dwarf variety that only grows about 2 feet tall in 5 to 6 years. The deep pink buds open to medium pink flowers. Small dark green leaves are about half the size of most varieties.
Needless to say, these are only a few of the new introductions. In fact, you may find varieties like 'Bullseye'; 'Carousel'; 'Sarah'; 'Hearts Desire' and dozens of others that you like even more the ones I have mentioned.
PLANTING AND TRANSPLANTING
Since most new plants are grown in containers they can be planted at any time. In fact, I would suggest you select them when they are in bloom, so you get the pick of varieties. As for transplanting, the best time is in the autumn or late winter. Plant them so the root ball is right at ground level. Mix compost, processed manure, or peat moss into the planting hole, as they thrive on plenty of organic humus in the soil. Remember they need a spot that is semi-shady, so the plants are protected from the hot afternoon sun.
The plants are not heavy feeders. However, growers tell me that if the foliage tends to yellow a bit, it's the plants way of saying it needs food. Use a 'Rhododendron' type fertilizer to feed them. I think mid-February is the best time to fertilize. However, they can also be fed immediately after flowering. Apply the fertilizer according to label instructions and then water-in thoroughly.
Many varieties have a natural bushy growth habit, others will tend to stretch a little, so light pruning after bloom, if needed, will help keep the leggy plants in better shape.
Kalmia's are not easy plants to propagate. However, with diligence they can be started from cuttings, grafting or even layering. (Named varieties are subject to patent laws, and royalties must be paid to the developer.)
Want to add a bright spot of color to your shady or semi-shady garden? Consider one of the new brilliant kalmia introductions. They will really brighten-up the garden!