The main thing I find with Mountain Laurels (Kalmia latifolia), when I discuss them with my garden design clients, is they think this flowering broadleaf evergreen shrub should be in full shade because Mt. Laurels are commonly seen in the wild growing under a canopy of trees. However, to get plentiful blooms on typical Mountain Laurel shrubs sold as landscape plants from garden nurseries, you need to plant them where they will get a bit of sun.
Half-Day Sun Location
Mountain Laurels will provide you with more blooms when placed where they get a half-day of sun, or when situated in a ‘bright’ shady area in your yard or landscape. Think of a dappled shade location for this plant candidate, where there is some filtered light coming through the nearby trees. If planted by a house, select a side where the location gets sun for part of the day. Otherwise, the shrub will not flower as densely. It does tolerate shade well, but when in full shade all day, you will primarily see foliage over flowers.
Little Cup-Shaped Flowers
The colors of the flower buds and opened blooms on Mountain Laurel shrubs range from white to pink, and some cultivars are available in deep reds to lush rose tones. When the buds appear in late spring, they are shaped like tightly closed pinwheels. Eventually they open up to reveal small cup-shaped saucer-like flowers in clusters, each holding ten stamens in the center.
It is always a pleasure to spot these flowers in the wild while on a hike or when full bloom in a homeowner’s landscape. But more often than not, I’ve seen the plants look scraggly and lacking leaves and blooms. Usually this is a result of not enough sunlight, or due to poor growing soil conditions. Consider the soil as well as the exposure to get the maximum performance from this evergreen spring blooming shrub.
Glossy Green Leaves
The dark glossy evergreen leaves on Mountain Laurels are elliptic shaped, broadest in the middle and narrow on the ends. It will hold onto its leaves throughout the winter months and typically does not require regular pruning for maintenance. If placed in full hot sun, the leaves may yellow a bit, so again, achieving some sun with shade is best situation for these shrubs.
As this plant matures, it may grow to have a more open and non-full look to its shape. This growth will also happen if it is grown in full shade or lacking healthy soil at its roots. I like the description of gnarled growth as written for this plant on mobot.org. See their ‘plant finders’ link below for additional details.
In my experience of seeing Mountain Laurels in homeowners’ landscapes, their shrubs are more open than dense. In fact, I can only think of one case where I saw a beautiful Mountain Laurel in a foundation planting completely full of leaves and blooms. When I asked the homeowner what they did, they said all of their soil was formerly farmland. Their housing development was placed on healthy organic soil to start with.
Acidic and Healthy Fertile Soil
In addition to providing some dappled sun or filtered shade to achieve the best blooms, Mountain Laurels prefer acidic soils to get the nutrients they desire to grow well. The soil should also be moist, well-drained, and have good fertility with high organic matter. Mountain Laurel shrubs will not thrive in alkaline soils typically found near home foundations, and tend to suffer if placed in poor soils unable to hold moisture. Many properties are void of healthy soils because the soil was disturbed or removed when the house was built. If you did not amend your planting beds around your home’s foundation, it may not be well suited for Mountain Laurels because they will suffer from things like drought stress or lack of nutrients.
If unsure of your soil conditions, collect a soil sample first and mail it to the UCONN Soil Lab for testing. Or go with a holistic approach by amending the soil with healthy compost prior to planting. Raising the planting bed is also beneficial for Mountain Laurel shrubs because the soil will drain well which they prefer.
When planting a shrub in a poor soil, void of organic life, it usually will not prosper, flower, or flourish. So remember to consider the exposure, the soil’s existing condition, and don’t forget once you have it in the right spot, to finish it off with some mulch.
Mountain Laurels pair up well with rhododendrons and azaleas due to their similar acidic soil requirements, preferred exposure of dappled sunlight and shade, and sequence of the blooms during the spring time. And they share similar water and mulch requirements. Mulch is a good idea for these shrubs because all three are shallow rooted and it will help keep the soil moist and cool. If you are seeing wilt on your shrubs, this can be an indication it needs some watering. Remember to protect all three of these plants from drying winds, and again, when newly planted, to follow a watering routine until they get established.
UCONN Plant Database
State Symbols USA
Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder
To see photos of Mountain Laurels and other Evergreen Shrubs blogged about on ContainerCrazyCT, visit Cathy T’s Pinterest Board: