Mountain Laurel Care: How To Grow Beautiful Shade Loving Kalmia latifolia

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is an evergreen shrub with beautiful spring flowers that thrives in the shade. The perfect plant for your shade garden! Learn all the details on how to grow, plant and care for this pretty bush.

How To Grow Shade Loving Mountain Laurel

When I first moved into my house, it was a brand new builder grade house. Which means that the only plants to be seen were the one small tree in the middle of the front yard and a few bushes lined up along the foundation of the house. In the backyard, there wasn’t even any grass growing.

Since I love to garden, I had to remedy that situation right away! It was the first time in my life that I had a garden with full sun. I was so happy to be able to plant all of the roses and hibiscus and peonies that I wanted, along with some other bushes and trees.

Of course, now that I have been here for a few years, all of those little bushes and trees have grown into much bigger bushes and trees. And I am back to having a mostly shady garden.

I’m not really complaining…it gets so hot here in the summer, I can use all the shade I can get! However, it does mean moving some of those roses around and filling in the gaps with some shade loving shrubs…which is where mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) comes into the picture.

Wild Kalmia latifolia in forest by ForestWander (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons | How To Grow Shade Loving Mountain Laurel | If you are looking for a shade loving shrub that is evergreen and has beautiful flowers, Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is perfect. Find out all the details on how to grow it.

Wild Kalmia latifolia in forest by ForestWander (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Kalmia latifolia is a broad-leaf evergreen that is a native plant of eastern North America (always a bonus in my books!) and is actually the state flower of both Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

It is also a relative of the Rhododendron family…not quite as well known but has a lot of similar characteristics, including its ability to grow (and bloom) in the shade.

If you’re looking for more shrubs for shade, click HERE to see our list of bushes that grow well under trees.

One word of caution though, the leaves of Mountain Laurel are poisonous if ingested, so it may not be a good plant for you if you have pets or young children that might try to eat them.

Keep reading to find out how to grow Mountain Laurel.

Where To Plant Mountain Laurel

Kalmia latifolia by Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kalmia latifolia by Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zone: 4 – 9 (depending on the variety)

As I mentioned above, most varieties of this shrub do well in shade, although dappled or part shade is best if you want lots of flowers.

Mountain Laurel by Jason Hollinger [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Mountain Laurel by Jason Hollinger [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of flowers, it has beautiful clusters of showy white, pink or red blooms (usually) that appear in late spring to mid-summer. Since the leaves stay green, the plant adds structure to the garden even after it has finished blooming. This makes it perfect for informal hedges, the back of perennial beds or woodland settings.

In the wild, mountain laurel is actually quite a large bush. It can grow up to 15′ high and wide. However, many of cultivated varieties are much smaller, so check the label when you are buying. And make sure to plant it where it will have room to grow.

Another shade-loving shrub you might like:  How To Grow Japanese Pieris

How To Plant Kalmia latifolia

Kalmia latifolia 'Clementine Churchill' by A. Barra (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Kalmia latifolia ‘Clementine Churchill’ by A. Barra (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Like Rhododendrons, Kalmia latifolia likes acidic soil. Which is good for me since the dirt in my neck of the woods tends to be naturally acidic. If you have neutral or alkaline growing conditions, adding some peat moss to the hole when you are planting will help to give the plant a good start.

When you put the plant in the hole, don’t plant it too deeply. Mountain Laurels often do better when the crown (where the stems meet the roots) is a little above ground and covered with mulch. Otherwise, they have a tendency to rot in the soil (which obviously isn’t very good for the plant).

Evergreen shrub Mountain Laurel by lcrms / Adobe Stock

Mountain laurel by lcrms / Adobe Stock

These bushes have very shallow root systems. That means they can dry out very quickly so covering them with a 3″ – 4″ layer of organic mulch after you have finished planting is a good idea. Pine needles, wood chips or ground bark work well.

Mountain Laurels need a lot of water when they are starting out. Try to water them deeply a couple of times a week. Having said that, the soil should be moist but not wet…so maintaining good drainage is also important.  If your soil is heavy (like clay), try amending it with compost and top soil to help improve the drainage.

You might also like:  How To Care For Camellias

Pruning Mountain Laurel

Shade loving shrub Kalmia latifolia by yuujii / Adobe Stock

Kalmia latifolia by yuujii / Adobe Stock

Mountain Laurels do not need a lot of pruning (my kind of plant!)

The buds for next year’s flowers start forming after the previous year’s blooms are finished. So if you do want to prune to shape the plant, do it immediately after the blossoms are spent to avoid cutting off next year’s buds.

To encourage the plant to put its energy into growing bigger flowers instead of seeds, pinch off the flower heads at the top of the stem when they are finished blooming.

Fertilizing Mountain Laurel

Adding a fertilizer for acid-loving plants* in the spring will help to keep your Laurel Mountain happy.

However, because the Kalmia latifolia roots are so shallow, using full strength fertilizer can burn them. Mixing it at 1/4 strength will still provide nutrients for the plant without causing any damage. It also means your fertilizer will last longer 🙂

For a shade-loving ground cover try: How to grow Lenten Rose

Mountain Laurel varieties

Finding Mountain Laurels can sometimes be a bit tricky (the plastic variety available at my local big box store doesn’t really count). So I thought I would share a few that are available from one of my favorite nurseries:  Wayside Gardens. These plants are getting more popular so I think they should become more readily available.

Kalmia latifolia ‘Minuet’ is a dwarf variety that only grows to about 3′ high and wide. Perfect for a smaller garden or perennial border. Find it HERE.

Mountain Laurel ‘Keepsake’ is another dwarf variety that grows to 3′ or 4′ high and wide. I just love the purple-burgundy blooms on this one! Find it HERE.

Mountain Laurel ‘Starburst’ is a slightly larger shrub that grows to about 5′ high and 6′ wide. The wide edges on the flowers are a beautiful contrast against the burgundy of the center. Find it HERE.

If you prefer to go closer to the native colors, Kalmia latifolia ‘Pristine’ may be the one for you. It is also a smaller sized bush, topping out at about 4′. Find it HERE.

Now I’m off to plan the next shady spot that I can fit one of these in to. And hopefully you have found some inspiration for planting a mountain laurel or two of your own.

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10 Responses

    • Hi Sherry…yes, the Mountain Laurel flowers are pretty 🙂 The lowest zone I have heard of people growing them is zone 4, so I think zone 3 is probably pushing it. Maybe if you have a really protected spot?

  • I live in North western SC and was wondering if you are talking about the Laurel tree, and also if they will grow here? I know they do in North Carolina, also if they need complete shade? I love them because they don’t get huge and they are evergreens!

    • Hi Linda…Mountain Laurel is a different plant than the laurel tree (although the leaves look a little similar). I live in north western SC also (Greenville) and Mountain Laurel does well here. They will grow in part sun or shade, but will have a tough time in full sun (it’s a little too hot for them). They are really pretty plants.

  • Funny enough my entire property is surrounded by native mountain laurel here in southern NH. As they’re native they require little to no maintenance, and on the edge of the forest (where they receive the most sun) they produce gorgeous clusters of white blooms. Mixed in with the laurels are a few blueberry bushes of some tall native variety that have white blooms earlier in the spring- so I have quite a few chances to hold parties in the spring! Only current issue I have is the ever encroaching nature of the forest we live in. In the past 16 years since the house was built, the trees have been growing in quite close and quite large near the house due to a lack of planning (thanks mom and dad) and I’ve been having trouble keeping up with the amount of yard work in fall. Ideally (though I hate removing native plants) the trees would be pushed back 15 feet further on all sides from where they’re currently at- but with 100ft pines and maples and oaks with large branch systems, things would get incredibly expensive. Seeing as you live with trees, do you have any advice on how I might reduce the amount of work created in autumn by these trees dropping everything in Autumn? Currently I only have access to a traditional rake and tarp setup- but it is very time and energy consuming, and often I never finish the whole yard just by how absolutely dense and thick the leaf twig and needle cover is. The laurels love it for their root systems, and even thrive because of it in a swampy clay-bottomed area. Anything in the yard however can’t break through anything that I don’t get to rake, and so I’m left with quite an unappealing front yard. Any advice on this situation would be fantastic if you have it. I only have two more years before heading off to college (and hopefully Scotland) and my Father will move out then too to downsize, but he’s gonna need some curb appeal to sell a place with this much mortgage.
    Thank you very much!

    • Hi Anton…Your yard sounds like it is very pretty in the spring, but a lot of work in the fall! For my yard, I use a leaf blower to blow the top layers of leaves back into the wooded area and then rake up what is remaining. Not sure if that is an option for you? Or if you have a lawn mower with a bag attachment you can clear a lot of leaves by mowing over them (although you’ll need to empty the bag frequently). Otherwise, your rake and tarp solution is the best one that I know of.

    • Hi Laura…I haven’t tried so I can’t say for sure. The roots might get a little warm in the summer…but I think it would be worth a shot 🙂

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