MOUNTAIN LAUREL

It’s getting on toward the end of spring here in Delaware. We’ve just started having our usual midyear hot, muggy, sticky, weather. High summer hasn’t arrived just yet, but it’s not far off.

While many of our springtime flowers have already come and gone, one species that thrives here in late May/early June is the evergreen mountain laurel, or kalmia latifolia. This is a relative of the rhododendron that produces clusters of attractive white blossoms and tends to thrive in acidic soil or on rocky slopes.

The plant isn’t especially common in my immediate neck of the woods. One tends to see it in small concentrations in only the very most rugged sections of White Clay Creek and Fair Hill state parks, where the stone is close to the surface and the slopes are at their steepest. I suppose they call it mountain Laurel for a reason. But these concentrations aren’t very extensive, and there are large parts of northern Delaware which the plant just doesn’t seem to be especially well suited to.

But a little bit south the conditions are just different enough for the plant to grow more extensively. On the Elk Neck Peninsula, a small but surprisingly rugged spit of land created by the meeting of the Elk River with the upper Chesapeake Bay, big groves of mountain laurel cover the slopes of steep hills composed of unstable river deposits (I’ve written another post about the area here). Suffice it to say that since Elk Neck State Park contains perhaps the only natural feature referred to as a mountain in the whole of the Eastern Shore of Maryland—even if by any reasonable standard said mountain should probably be considered a hill—it’s quite a fine place to see mountain laurel.

That feature, by the way, is called Mauldin Mountain, and for a few weeks in late spring its western flank is covered in white flowers. A particularly spectacular grove of mountain laurel is located about three quarters of a mile down the White Banks trail, which you can access from the Northeast Beach parking lot.

By the way, don’t eat it.

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