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THROUGH the WOODS: Mountain laurel

The mountain laurel. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

A GREAT HERALD OF SUMMER is the flowering of our mountain laurel. Sometime from mid-June to the fourth of July we make trips to Copake Falls, go past Bash Bish Falls and then up into the Taconic Mountains to look for laurel. The laurel blossoms probably won’t be opening fully for another week. The route is mostly a dirt road to cooler air of Mount Washington Road south to Mount Riga, past the dam and the old iron smelting furnace and down into Salisbury Connecticut. Even without the laurel this is a wonderful ride if you don’t mind some rough road with a little grass in the middle on the Connecticut section. Heavy rains can cause washouts so it is prudent to wait for good weather. There was enough laurel in bloom a few years ago to keep us happy and make us stop to ooh and ah and take dozens of photos. Thank heaven for digital photography because it is hard to stop photographing them, and I do it almost every year. This is the way to enjoy them at home because they are a protected a species and there is a heavy fine for picking them or disturbing them.

Our mountain laurel is called Kalmia latifolia, is located in eastern North America, and is related to the blueberry family. The leaves and plant parts are poisonous and honey made from the flowers can cause gastric distress. It is not related to the bay laurels like those that give us bay leaves for cooking, and grow around the Mediterranean and in California. The bay laurels are also the type that were used to make wreaths to crown the heroes of Greece and Rome, and were the ones often pictured around Julius Caesar’s head. You see them at the Olympic Games to denote victory, and have given us the phrase “to rest on your laurels.” Even though they seem the grander type of laurels, I will take our beautiful mountain laurel any day.

Even after blooming they have shiny dark green leaves to decorate the forest and roadsides in all seasons. During bloom time they have dark pink to red buds that open to show shades of dark pink to white flowers of an unusual form. The flowers are clustered in bunches along the branches of the shrub. Each individual flower has six points in kind of a cup or inverted umbrella shape about a half inch in diameter. The mountain laurel shrub needs acid soil and partial shade to grow, and along the route through Massachusetts and Connecticut they were growing as far back into the woods as we could see. The fallen tree leaves rot down each winter and add to the rich, acid soil.

A tree we were happy to see were the shrubby patches of the almost extinct American Chestnut trees. We keep hoping that they will eventually become resistant to disease and make a comeback. There has been a lot of research on this with some success. Another place to see laurel is the eastern mountains, still part of the Taconic Range, along the Massachusetts border in the Town of Austerlitz. You can access the road into the New York State Forest area from Route 22 north of the hamlet of Austerlitz, or follow the East Hill Road past the Austerlitz Post Office and the Edna St. Vincent Millay property. The State land is open to the public. Other parts of the mountains are private property. There are signs that designate areas for different uses and restrictions, and the state road dead ends at the top. Views are more open and distant. When we were kids my youngest sister and I rode our horses over these mountains and into Alford, MA. We could camp overnight and didn’t worry about bears, coyotes or Lyme disease.

Our great-grandfather Albert Shepard’s farm was there, and we followed the route of about 10 miles he used to walk to visit my maternal grandmother, his daughter. I was told he was a tall, lean man with lots of energy who liked to walk. When we rode we encountered many laurel bushes that were about stirrup high and an awful tangle. We avoided it as much as possible and recognized its advantages as cover for wildlife as well as for its beauty. Now days I am content to make an annual pilgrimage to see the laurel in bloom from the road, and am happy to see it still thrives in the old haunts. A wonderful welcome to summer.

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