This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Stems about two feet high, slender, somewhat branching. Leaves one to two inches long, and about half an inch wide, opposite and ternate, on short petioles, linear-elliptic, paler or slightly russet beneath. Flowers small, bright deep crimson, in lateral corymbs, in the axils of the ternate leaves, and thus appearing verticillate; pedicels filiform, one-third to two-thirds of an inch in length, with two unequal bracts at the base. (Darlington's Flora Cestrica. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, Chapman's Flora of the Southern United Stales, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
THIS beautiful genus was dedicated to Peter Kalm by Lin-naeus in 1751, as our botanical authorities say. In his Journal, under date of November 20, 1748, Kalm, noting a short trip he made from Philadelphia to the house of Peter Rambo, near Gloucester, New Jersey, and referring to the common Laurel, says: "Dr. Linnaeus, conformable to the peculiar friendship and goodness which he has always honored me with, has been pleased to call this tree Kalmia latifolia" In referring to this plant, Dr. Darlington observes: "With great deference to the decision of Linnaeus, this genus of beautiful evergreens is the one which, in my humble opinion, ought to have commemorated the merits of John Bartram, the botanical patriarch of our country." Linnaeus, however, named no genus in honor of our early naturalist, nor did any one so honor him during his lifetime. After his decease Gaertner, a German botanist, named for him an East Indian plant, allied to the Linden; but it was found not sufficiently distinct from a genus already established, and is now known as Triumfetta Bartramia. At the end of the century Hedwig named a small moss, Bartramia. which stands to this day the worthy memorial of this modest man. Kalm was a great friend of Bartram, as we judge from Kalm's journal, and as a letter from him to John Bartram in Darlington's "Memorials" indicates; and doubtless the good old Quaker botanist was well satisfied that Dr. Linnaeus in his peculiar goodness had thus commemorated his friend. Kalm was no common man. He was born in Finland in 1715, and was destined for the church; but after attending a course of lectures by Linnaeus, he determined to devote his whole life to the study of natural history. He was subsequently elected Professor of " Economy " in the University of Abo, which, until its destruction by fire, and removal to Hel-singfors in 1827, was one of the leading centres of learning- in the north of Europe. The Royal Swedish Academy desired to send some one to explore the northern part of the American continent, believing from the similarity of the climate that much good would result to Swedish agriculture and the kindred arts and sciences; and, on the recommendation of Linnaeus, Professor Peter Kalm was selected, and a practical gardener, Lars Yungstraem, detailed to accompany him. He sailed from Goettenburg on the 11th of December, 1747; but, touching at Norway, did not reach London till February. He left London on the 15th of August, and arrived in Philadelphia on the 26th of September - a very fair voyage for those days. In 1749 he went through New Jersey, and along the Hudson river to Albany, thence across Lakes George and Champlain to Canada, where, he tells Bartram, in the letter above cited, he was "once not far from thrown in the other world," for he " did go down a river where such Indians did live that do kill all the English they see." Returning against winter to Philadelphia, he made a large shipment of seeds and plants to Sweden, and the next year explored western Pennsylvania, the Blue Mountains, and the coast of New Jersey; and went again through New York to Niagara Falls, returning; in October to Philadelphia, starting for England on the 13th of February following, having been nearly four years away. He resumed his professorship at Abo, and died in 1779, in the 64th year of his age.
Though the genus is dedicated to Kalm, it was known before his day, through Banister, the early Virginian botanist, who made the celebrated Ray acquainted with it; and the species now known as Kalmia angustifolia was figured by Plukenet in the early part of the eighteenth century, who acknowledges his indebtedness to Banister. The plants in a living state were first sent to England by Bartram to Collinson in 1730, a little before Kalm's time.
In beauty there are few more striking plants than the "narrow-leaved Kalmia." Its sister species, Kalmia latifolia, from its stronger growth, makes in the landscape a greater display of its charms; but it will not bear so well as this one the critical tests we may apply to beauty. A poisonous character is attributed to it, which is said to act fatally, especially on sheep and lambs. Mr. D. J. Brown, the author of the "Trees of America," says: "The flowers of Kalmia angustifolia are known to produce unwholesome honey;" but he does not give any facts to bear out the assertion. The nearest approach to positive experience at hand is in a work on sheep by Dr. H. S. Randall, an author well known in connection with that subject. He says: "The narrow-leafed, low laurel, Kalmia angustifolia, .. is eaten by sheep, particularly when they are unaccustomed to them, or when they are hungry from travelling, and find these bushes growing by the roadsides." But in another place he observes: "Other plants besides laurel are suspected of poisoning sheep; but very little accurate information has yet been obtained regarding them." It is very likely the reputation is the remains of some early notion which has been repeated by succeeding authors without any personal investigation. John Clayton, in sending to Gronovius in the early part of the last century, remarked, that "an opinion is prevalent that this species is greatly injurious to sheep." It was but an opinion then, and is but little more now. Rafinesque, however, says positively that the tincture of Kalmia angustifolia is so powerful that "a few drops killed a rattlesnake." Elliott, the author of a botany of South Carolina, says that the negroes of that State use a wash of the leaves of this species to cure minute parasites on dogs. Dr. F. Peyre Porcher, in his "Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests," quotes Dr. Torrey for the statement that "the leaves of the Kalmia (angustifolia) exude a sweet, honey-like juice, which is said when swallowed to bring on a mental intoxication both formidable in its symptoms and long in its duration;" but, except the fact that it exudes a honey-like juice, Dr. Torrey seems to report only what "is said" of it.
In general, there is a remarkable uniformity in the color of the flowers of this species, though in Kalmia latifolia there are numberless shades. Willdenow says, however, that it varies with red and with drooping flowers - "rubris et cernuis;" - but this is probably one of those errors not unfrequently found in the most carefully edited works. The "Botanical Magazine," figuring the plant in 1796, notes that there was then a pale variety in cultivation as well as the one with deep red flowers, so that flesh-colored and not drooping was probably what Willdenow intended to say. This variation must, however, have been in a special case, as it is probably rarely seen in nature.
In regard to its geographical distribution and peculiar locations, Dr. Gray says, in his "Synoptical Flora of North America," that it grows on "Hill-sides from Newfoundland and Hud-son's Bay to the upper part of Georgia;" but though often found on dry hill-sides, and at considerable elevations, it is one of the commonest of plants on the low sandy levels of New Jersey, and in similar places in other States. It extends beyond the Alle-ghanies into central Ohio and up into Southern Michigan.
In Pennsylvania, from whence the specimen for our illustration was taken, it flowers in June. This seems the date fixed for it by most authors; but in South Carolina, according to Elliott, it is in bloom in April.