Blooming mountain laurel ushers in early summer

If any wildflower ushers in the calendar change from spring to summer, it is the beautiful mountain laurel. It’s blooming in great profusion now in Georgia‘s mountains, Piedmont and even a few Coastal Plain counties — and will continue to do so through mid-June, just before summer arrives on June 21.

Growing often in tangled thickets on mountain slopes, along streams and in ravines and wetlands, mountain laurel’s pink to white, teacup-shaped blooms are so abundant that they may completely obscure their shrubs’ gnarly, reddish brown limbs and evergreen leaves. It creates waves of color that can make a blooming mountain laurel thicket one of nature’s great spectacles. (The thickets’ near impenetrable density, though, once earned them the names “laurel hell” and “laurel slick” from early settlers.)

In her poem Mountain Laurel, famed nineteenth-century author Louisa May Alcott expressed her love for the blooming shrub, which she called her "bonnie flower:"

My bonnie flower, with truest joy

Thy welcome face I see,

The world grows brighter to my eyes

And summer comes with thee.

Scores of other poems, essays and even songs have been inspired by mountain laurel. Numerous streets, roads, schools and physical areas such as creeks and mountaintops are named for the shrub. Many of those places, though, bear the name “ivy,” which is what many old-timers once called mountain laurel. In Georgia, you are likely to find Ivy Creek, Ivy Creek Road, Ivy Gap and other ivy-named places. Several towns also celebrate mountain laurel with festivals in late spring. I attended Clarkesville’s Mountain Laurel Festival in North Georgia last weekend.

Mountain laurel’s beauty, however, may belie a darker side: All parts of the shrub are toxic to several animals — including horses, cattle and humans — if ingested. Its toxicity in sheep earned it another nickname, lambkill.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be in its last quarter on Sunday. Venus is low in the east just before sunrise and will appear near the moon next Saturday. Mars is very low in the west at dusk and sets about two hours later. Jupiter rises in the east before midnight. Saturn rises in the east a few hours after midnight.

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