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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.