June is the month when the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) blooms in northcentral Pennsylvania. And, mountain laurel happens to be the official state flower of Pennsylvania.
Some years there’s such a profusion of flowers on the shrubs that the entire plant appears white – or, in the case of some individual plants, light pink.
There’s no denying that the flowers are beautiful or that a forest full of blooming mountain laurel is a sight to behold. It’s a sight that draws people from near and far to drive the mountain roads. There are lots of “oohs” and “aahs” as cars full of folks who would otherwise never venture off a paved road traverse the dirt and gravel roads to see the flowers.
Mountain laurel occupies hundreds of thousands of acres in Pennsylvania, typically growing as an understory shrub in forests dominated by a mixture of oak species. Here it does best on fairly dry, acidic, infertile soils and is often accompanied by black huckleberry.
Call me an old grump, but having spent much of my working life walking through forests with a dense understory of mountain laurel I’m not a fan of the plant. In many places mountain laurel grows from four to ten feet tall with an interlocking maze of twisted stems –
The heavy shade cast by the plants and their dense root mats, which quickly absorb available water, can dramatically reduce the ability of tree seedlings to survive and grow.
In addition to the pretty flowers there are two redeeming qualities to mountain laurel, or at least to the places it grows in profusion: it’s a good place to find pink lady’s-slipper in bloom –
and it’s a good place to find timber rattlesnakes –