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Mountain Laurel Shrubs and Bay Laurel Trees

Apollo, Daphne and The Rich History of Bay Laurel Trees


Mountain Laurel Shrub

Mountain Laurel Flowers

David Beaulieu

Mountain laurel shrubs (Kalmia latifolia) are a close relative of rhododendrons and azaleas, all three shrubs belonging to the heath family. They are not related to their namesakes, though, the bay laurel trees. A broadleaf evergreen, Kalmia latifolia bears glossy, deep green leaves that are attractive in all seasons.

But it is this shrub’s spring or summer flower display that makes it a special part of the woodlands it calls home in the eastern part of North America. The pictures of mountain laurel above were taken in New England, where the plant blooms in late June and early July. Click on the photo shown to display all the pictures in the gallery.

Mountain laurel bushes are sometimes confused with bay laurel trees (Laurus nobilis), the small Mediterranean trees prominent in history and literature. The ancient Greeks and Romans fashioned bay laurel tree’s leaves into wreaths, to be worn as crowns by the victors in sporting events and military campaigns. When you think of Julius Caesar, you probably picture him wearing just such a wreath.

Ever since, the foliage of bay laurel trees has been a symbol of victory. It is still used as such for the Olympics. We even have the expression, “to rest on one’s laurels,” meaning to be overly content with one’s past achievements. It is also this more famous laurel that is used as a flavoring agent in cooking, often referred to as “bay leaf.”

In Greco-Roman mythology the nymph, Daphne was transformed into a bay laurel tree (not a daphne shrub; go figure!), to save her from Apollo’s unwelcome advances. Apollo was chasing this daughter of the river-god, Peneus through the woods when the magical metamorphosis occurred. The tale of her transformation has been passed down to us by the Latin poet, Ovid -- in the appropriately titled, Metamorphoses. Edith Hamilton, in her Mythology, relates the tale to us in English with her usual charm:

“She felt his breath upon her neck, but there in front of her the trees opened and she saw her father’s river. She screamed to him, ‘Help me! Father, help me!’ At the words a dragging numbness came upon her, her feet seemed rooted in the earth she had been so swiftly speeding over. Bark was enclosing her; leaves were sprouting forth. She had been changed into a tree, a laurel.”

The subject of the present article, however, mountain laurel, is related to its namesake, the bay laurel tree only in name. Indeed, the common name for Kalmia latifolia derives from the fact that, when Europeans encountered it in the New World, it reminded them superficially of bay laurel trees. But while the foliage of bay laurel trees is used as a culinary herb, mountain laurel is poisonous! Another reminder of Why We Use Scientific Names when discussing plants....

Interested in growing mountain laurel shrubs on your own property? The sun, water and soil requirements for mountain laurels are discussed on Page 2, along with other growing tips….

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