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Bob McCartney, our guest writer this month, grew up on a plantation on the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia, where he spent countless hours in the woods and on the water learning about the natural world firsthand.

He earned a BS in Wildlife Management at Utah State University followed by a MS in Game Management from LSU. After working for a few years as a biologist for the State of Virginia he joined the landscape department of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where he was employed for almost 15 years. Native plants were considered authentic for the colonial gardens so Bob collected, propagated, and introduced many native plants from throughout the southeastern U.S. Many of these are growing today in Williamsburg’s gardens and grounds.  

In 1980 Bob became co-owner of Woodlanders, Inc., now an internationally-known mail order source of native and rare plants. He has continued his searches for new plants throughout the southern U.S. and as far away as Mexico and Argentina. The Kalmia latifolia 'Pristine' in the photograph is a Woodlanders introduction.

Bob is active in conservation activities with emphasis on land management for longleaf pine ecosystem restoration and protection of significant natural areas and endangered species, along with other ecological endeavors. In this article, learn about our native Kalmia latifolia, known locally as Mountain Laurel, Kalmia, Calico Bush, Spoonwood, Ivy, or Laurel-depending on where you live.
Kalmia latifolia
ROBERT B. McCARTNEY, Co-owner of Woodlanders, Inc.
Photograph courtesy of
Most gardeners and outdoors folks in the eastern regions of the U.S. are familiar with the native evergreen flowering shrub Kalmia latifolia, the best known of several Kalmia species native to North America. It occurs naturally from Maine to Florida and Louisiana but is most abundant and of largest size (sometimes becoming almost tree-like) in the Appalachian Mountains. With glossy evergreen foliage and showy clusters of cup-shaped flowers, it is a very attractive plant. The flowers on wild plants, which appear in late spring, are typically pale to deep pink. Like its relatives the Rhododendrons, it occurs on acidic soils and most typically on slopes with ample moisture. 

Although less common and more widely scattered in the Deep South, it does occur far from the mountains in several counties which border the Gulf of Mexico.

Kalmia was named for Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist (1716-1779) who traveled and collected plants in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Common names for plants can cause much confusion. Kalmia is most often called “Mountain Laurel” (in Texas a totally unrelated plant), but it is also known by other common names including Calico Bush, Spoonwood, Ivy, and Laurel. The Indians called it Clamoun. Curiously, around Aiken, South Carolina, where the plant is abundant, the common name is Kalmia and there is a Kalmia Hill, a Kalmia Mall, etc.! 

Since Kalmia occurs over such a wide geographic range, it is not surprising that it has diverse names. Individual plants can also exhibit diverse physical characteristics including leaf shape, growth habit, flower color, etc. Taking advantage of these variations, Dr. Richard Jaynes, in Connecticut, has been a leader in breeding and selecting horticultural varieties of Mountain Laurel. Although not so easily cultivated as some shrubs, it is still an important plant in ornamental horticulture and the various forms have resulted in a great many named selections now grown in nurseries and offered to the gardening public. Forms include those with pure white flowers, red flowers, banded flowers, very large flowers, narrow leaves, and various growth habits including prostrate forms.  

Although propagated in tissue culture, it has long been considered difficult to propagate Kalmia from cuttings. George Mitchell at Woodlanders Nursery in Aiken, South Carolina has however routinely propagated forms like the narrow leaf ‘Willowood’ and the prostrate ‘Croft Carpet’ from cuttings. Gardeners in zones 5-8 who have well-drained acid soil may have success with Kalmia latifolia if they mulch it, preferably with pine needles, and water during dry spells. Gardeners in the Deep South should plant Kalmias from their region, as the interesting and attractive Kalmias from the North or from higher elevations appear much less well-suited to hot climate areas. 

When this writer was in high school near Williamsburg, Virginia in the 1950’s, Mountain Laurel was abundant in the local woods. One classmate was a member of a northern family that came to the area each winter to harvest Mountain Laurel. The foliage was cut and shipped north for use as florist greens. This activity was likewise pursued in the mountains of North Carolina where it was referred to as “breaking ivy.” By whatever name you know it, Kalmia/Mountain Laurel/Calico Bush, Etc., it is a plant whose flowers will light up shady areas in the spring.   

NOTE: Don’t be limited by the few offerings in local garden centers. Search out the unusual and little used. A good place to start is at Bob’s mail-order nursery:    


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