I’m a mountain laurel fan.

There’s a swampy place in the woods about a quarter mile from the house where acres upon acres of them grow. Despite the name, mountain laurels aren’t actually laurels. They’re native evergreen shrubs, sort of like rhododendrons, happy in the shade and growing almost anywhere at higher elevations along the east coast from Maine to Florida.

Mountain laurels are tough gnarly-bodied characters. Mine laugh at the thought of deer predation in an area where almost nothing else does. Mountain laurel are poisonous from leaf to root, which probably helps. They spread, to the extent they do, by luring insects into their flowers and dousing them with sticky pollen. If they were human, they wouldn’t be people you’d want to meet in a dark alley…or maybe anyplace else. But they have grit.

They survive in a hardscrabble area in eastern PA where even subsisting isn’t a given for anything (other than deer). For me, mountain laurels conjure up uncles who worked the docks around NYC before container ships and lived in a railroad flat in then-ghetto Chelsea. 

Mountain laurel flowers are gorgeous. They bloom in mid-May, announcing the arrival of spring in the mountains. Within six weeks, they’re gone. My neighborhood isn’t a lunch-date-in-Ueno-Park, flower-gazing, sake-drinking place. But mountain laurel flowers aren’t cherry blossoms, either. They’d be more at home in the saloons my uncles hung out in. Another reason to like them.

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