Wildflowers 101: Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron

Wildflowers 101: Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron

Tom Harrington

Story and images by Tom Harrington

How many of you enjoy seeing mountain laurel and rhododendron in bloom? In this issue we will examine mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron since they bloom in May and June.

As of the second week of May, mountain laurel was blooming on Ace Gap Trail in large numbers. Many were at peak bloom. The Chestnut Top and West Prong Trails along with Rich Mountain Road should have nice displays of these beautiful blooms about this time of year. You can also spot some nice blooms along the Foothills Parkway.

Mountain laurel can grow as tall as 10 feet, with leaves that grow up to four inches long. The shrub can be found in areas up to 5000 feet above sea level. The blooms are white with a light pink tint to them, and they have an enchanting fragrance. The shrub is also called American laurel, and some early settlers simply called it “ivy”. 

A beautiful mountain laurel in the Smokies
A large bloom of mountain laurels
Mountain laurel

All parts of the plant are very poisonous; however, one source says deer can eat it without ill effects. A word of caution needs to be noted at this point. It has been said that if a person were to eat deer who had eaten the laurel, the person could become very ill or even die. On a positive note, Native Americans were known to make wooden spoons from laurel wood.

Catawba rhododendron, also known as rosebay, grow as tall as 12 feet; however, a champion Catawba once grew to 25 feet tall. It would really be neat to see that champion! The Catawba rhododendron grows in elevations from 3000 feet to 6600 feet high. The blooms vary from light pink to dark pink, and even deep purple.  

A bright purple catawba rhododendron
Catawba rhododendron

My favorite trails to see these blooms are Alum Cave Bluff Trail, Miry Ridge Trail, and the AT from Newfound Gap eastward. One of the most interesting experiences that I have had with the Catawba rhododendron was on the Miry Ridge Trail about a mile from the Appalachian Trail. The trunk of a tree beside the trail forked about 15 feet above the ground into two prongs. Growing in between the two prongs of the trunk there is a rhododendron which is probably four feet tall. It sure is a treat to see that particular plant in full bloom!

Some folks have trouble determining the difference between mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron. The laurel has the smaller leaves and name. The rhododendron has the larger leaves and the larger name. Speaking of leaves, in cold weather rhododendron leaves droop and curl back. It has been said the tighter the leaves, the colder the weather.

Many of you have probably been interested in planting mountain laurel and/or rhododendron in your yard. I have had good luck with both plants on my property. They like acidic soil so keeping oak leaves or pine needles under the shrub is helpful. Until the plant is well established one needs to water it regularly, especially in dry weather. These plants normally will do well in shady areas. 

Hopefully you will arrange your busy schedule and get out to see these beautiful blooms on one of the trails in the Smokies. Maybe you will even visit your local nursery, buy one or more of these amazing shrubs, and put it/them out in your yard. Happy wildflowering one and all!

Tom Harrington is an Army veteran and retired insurance agent who has spent his life in Knox County, TN. He is an avid hiker and has volunteered for GSMNP since 2000.

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