Snacking habits are supposed to mature as you age, but we’re all allowed the occasional transgression, right? I never did manage to outgrow ice gem biscuits, and I’m not proud to admit that I even have a plush cushion in the shape of one. Yes, you have permission to judge me.
Obviously, I grew immediately fond of the pink mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) growing along Cedar Street. The buds, ridged and pointed at the tip, look just like the icing on those biscuits. Coincidentally, it’s also the state flower of Connecticut and Pennsylvania, although for some reason I never knew that it was our state flower till I googled it. The unique shape of the flower belies an even more unusual means of dispersing pollen: it relies on tension, by tucking the ends of the stamens under the edges of the petals. When an insect lands on the flower, the stamens shoot forth, propelling pollen outwards.
As its name implies, it grows on rocky slopes and mountainous forests in the wild, preferring moist acidic soils at a pH of 4.5 to 5.5. It grows best in moderate to partial shade, and though it can tolerate full shade or full sun, full shade can cause it to be become spindly, and have fewer or discoloured flowers, whilst full sun can scorch its leaves. With a shallow root system, the plant does need to be watered rather frequently, but doesn’t require much fertilizer. Plants grow slowly, but when mature can attain a height of 1.5 to 4.5m, although much shorter dwarf varieties exist. Some flowers are uniformly coloured, and some can be a mix of two colours, usually variations of white, pink, and red.
Some of you might have noticed that it has similar growing requirements to that of rhododendrons and azaleas. Indeed, they belong to the same family, and like its cousins, the mountain laurel also contains grayanotoxins. Any part of the plant is poisonous when consumed, including honey made from its nectar. On the bright side, its honey is bitter enough to warn people away from eating it. Symptoms of poisoning are rather unpleasant, including breathing difficulties, cardiac problems, vomiting, weakness, convulsions, paralysis, and gastrointestinal distress.
Despite these somewhat sinister effects, the mountain laurel has been used rather extensively in folk medicine. Leaves are used topically to numb pain, and treat rheumatism, ringworm, psoriasis (a skin condition), herpes, and syphilis. The wood can also be used for carvings, rails, and even some household items such as bowls, although one would seriously question the wisdom of eating from something you know is poisonous. But then again, if people had enough discipline to think that way, the cigarette industry wouldn’t be as huge as it is today.