This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Buds and new flowers bright rose pink, afterward fading white, and only lined with pink, i in. across, or less, numerous, in terminal clusters. Calyx small, 5-parted, sticky; corolla like a s-pointed saucer, with 10 projections on outside; 10 arching stamens, an anther lodged in each projection; 1 pistil. Stem: Shrubby, woody, stiffly branched, 2 to 20 ft. high. Leaves: Evergreen, entire, oval to elliptic, pointed at both ends, tapering into petioles. Fruit: A round, brown capsule, with the style long remaining on it.
Preferred Habitat - Sandy or rocky woods, especially in hilly or mountainous country.
Flowering Season - May - June.
Distribution - New Brunswick and Ontario, southward to the Gulf of Mexico, and westward to Ohio.
Mountain Laurel Or Calico-Bush. (Kalmia latifolia).
It would be well if Americans, imitating the japanese in making pilgrimages to scenes of supreme natural beauty, visited the mountains, rocky, woody hillsides, ravines, and tree-girt uplands when the laurel is in its glory; when masses of its pink and white blossoms, set among the dark evergreen leaves, flush the landscape like Aurora, and are reflected from the pools of streams and the serene depths of mountain lakes. Peter Kalm, a Swedish pupil of Linnaeus, who travelled here early in the eighteenth century, was more impressed by its beauty than that of any other flower. He introduced the plant to Europe, where it is known as kalmia, and extensively cultivated on fine estates that are thrown open to the public during the flowering season. Even a flower is not without honor, save in its own country. We have only to prepare a border of leaf-mould, take up the young plant without injuring the roots or allowing them to dry, hurry them into the ground, and prune back the bush a little, to establish it in our gardens, where it will bloom freely after the second year.
All the kalmias resort to a most ingenious device for compelling insect visitors to carry their pollen from blossom to blossom. A newly opened flower has its stigma erected where the incoming bee must leave on its sticky surface the four minute orange-like grains carried from the anther of another flower on the hairy underside of her body. Now, each anther is tucked away in one of the ten little pockets of the saucer-shaped blossom, and the elastic filaments are strained upward like a bow. After hovering above the nectary, the bee has only to descend toward it, when her leg, touching against one of the hair-triggers of the spring trap, pop! goes the little anther-gun, discharging pollen from its bores as it flies upward. So delicately is the mechanism adjusted, the slightest jar or rough handling releases the anthers; but, on the other hand, should insects be excluded by a net stretched over the plant, the flowers will fall off and wither without firing off their pollen-charged guns. At least, this is true in the great majority of tests. As in the case of hothouse flowers, no fertile seed is set when nets keep away the laurel's benefactors. One has only to touch the hair-trigger with the end of a pin to see how exquisitely delicate is this provision for cross-fertilization.
However much we may be cautioned by the apiculturalists against honey made from laurel nectar, the bees themselves ignore all warnings and apparently without evil results - happily for the flowers dependent upon them and their kin. Mr. Frank R. Cheshire, in "Bees and Bee-keeping," the standard English work on the subject, writes: "During the celebrated Retreat of the Ten Thousand, as recorded by Xenophon in his ' Anabasis,'the soldiers regaled themselves upon some honey found near Trebizonde, where were many bee-hives. Intoxication with vomiting was the result. Some were so overcome, he states, as to be incapable of standing. Not a soldier died, but very many were greatly weakened for several days. Tournefort endeavored to ascertain whether this account was corroborated by anything ascertainable in the locality, and had good reason to be satisfied respecting it. He concluded that the honey had been gathered from a shrub growing in the neighborhood of Trebizonde, which is well known there as producing the before-mentioned effects. It is now agreed that the plants were species of rhododendron and azaleas. Lam-berti confirms Xenophon's account by stating that similar effects are produced by honey of Colchis, where the same shrubs are common. In 1790, even, fatal cases occurred in America in consequence of eating wild honey, which was traced to Kalmia latifolia by an inquiry instituted under direction of the American government. Happily, our American cousins are now never likely to thus suffer, thanks to drainage, the plow, and the bee-farm."
One of the beautiful swallow-tail butterflies lays its eggs on laurel leaves, that the larvae may feed on them later; yet the foliage often proves deadly to more highly organized creatures. Most cattle know enough to let it alone; nevertheless some fall victims to it every year. Even the intelligent grouse, hard pressed with hunger when deep snow covers much of their chosen food, are sometimes found dead and their crops distended by these leaves. How far more unkind than the bristly armored thistle's is the laurel's method of protecting itself against destruction! Even the ant, intent on pilfering sweets secreted for bees, it ruthlessly glues to death against its sticky stems and calices. According to Dr. Barton the Indians drink a decoction of kalmia leaves when they wish to commit suicide.
As laurel wood is very hard and solid, weighing forty-four pounds to the cubic foot, it is in great demand for various purposes, one of them indicated in the plant's popular name of Spoon-wood.
Sheep-laurel, Lamb-kill, Wicky, Calf-kill, Sheep-poison, Narrow-leaved Laurel (K. angustifolia), and so on through a list of folk names testifying chiefly to the plant's wickedness in the pasture, may be especially deadly food for cattle, but it certainly is a feast to the eyes. However much we may admire the small, deep crimson-pink flowers that we find in June and July in moist fields or swampy ground or on the hillsides, few of us will agree with Thoreau, who claimed that it is "handsomer than the mountain laurel." The low shrub may be only six inches high, or it may attain three feet. The narrow evergreen leaves, pale on the under side, have a tendency to form groups of threes, standing upright when newly put forth, but bent downward with the weight of age. A peculiarity of the plant is that clusters of leaves usually terminate the woody stem, for the flowers grow in whorls or in clusters at the side of it below.
The Pale or Swamp Laurel (K. glauca), found in cool bogs from Newfoundland to New Jersey and Michigan, and westward to the Pacific Coast, coats the under side of its mostly upright leaves with a smooth whitish bloom like the cabbage's. It is a straggling little bush, even lower than the lamb-kill, and an earlier bloomer, putting forth its loose, niggardly clusters of deep rose or lilac-colored flowers in June.