Black and White: Mt Laurel

If you drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in late May and early June, you’ll be missing the forest for the trees if you don’t stop your car, get out, and walk along the forest edge.

You’ll see, hear, smell or otherwise learn something just about anywhere you do this. Walking speed allows our senses to work for us. Even the parkway’s slower-than-usual 45 mph is nowhere near slow enough for full comprehension of the full nature of any place along its 450 mile length.

But especially stop if you see Mountain Laurel in bloom. What looks like featureless pink-white masses from your car windshield will reveal intricate details when you stop and look closely.

This webpage gives some of the details of laurel’s intricately-crafted pollination trickery: ten spring-loaded pollen triggers in each flower are designed to catapult sperm-packets (the content of a pollen grain) onto a bee back on one flower and then transfer to the female sticky parts (stigma) of another. And a seed is born!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Whenever I read your commentary about the Mountain Laurels of your mountains my mind immediately supplies the aroma of grape kool-aid. Turns out there are two different plants known as Mountain Laurel… The one I remember is native to the southwest and has purple flowers that definitely have a sweet grape soda odor.

    I can find no reference to the odor of the flowers of your eastern species. But the commonality seems to be toxicity. Both plants are highly toxic. Even honey derived from the eastern species can poison people.

    Beautiful image…

  2. Gary, I did not know of the western “Mt laurel” and find it looks very much like the south’s invasive wisteria, which to my mind smells like grape kool-aid–and is a bean, like your mescal bean. Thanks for making me aware of like-named plants. Common names can create some interesting confusion.

  3. I have one of those wisterias you speak of… it was on the property when we arrived. Since it sits in the middle of grass and I keep it mowed back to single “bush” I haven’t had any trouble keeping it in check… So far.