How to Grow Kalmia – Mountain Laurel

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Kalmia — commonly called mountain laurel –is a beautiful flowering shrub related to the rhododendron. Kalmia flower stalks bear a small bud that looks like a fluted turban; the buds open to chalice-shaped blooms with five star-like points. Flowers have anther sacs with dark dots–thus a second common name “calico bush.”

Kalmia is an evergreen shrub. Like rhododendrons, Kalmia grows best where the air is moist and the soil is well-drained. Kalmia like an acidic soil rich in humus. Kalmia tolerates shade but will bloom best in full sun.

Kalmia is a genus of seven evergreen shrubs. All are native to woodlands, swamps, and moist meadows.

Tennessee Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia
Tennessee Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

Get to know Kalmia 

  • Plant type: Broad-leaved evergreen shrub. 
  • Growing zones and range: Zones 5 to 9. 
  • Hardiness: Hardy to Zone 5
  • Height and width: 2 to 6 feet (1.8m) tall and wide depending on the cultivar (see below).
  • Foliage: Glossy evergreen foliage; when not in flower, the laurel-like leaves of these species look a lot like those of the related rhododendron.  
  • Flowers: Clusters of cup- or bowl-shaped white, pink, or red flowers, often with markings; flowers are elegant and somewhat similar to rhododendron; the notable difference is that each long flower stalk bears a small bud resembling a fluted turban; buds open to chalice-shaped blooms with five starlike points.  
  • Bloom time: Late spring to early summer.  
  • Uses: Good backdrop for flower gardens, woodland gardens, or shady shrub borders.   
  • Garden companions: ‘Silver Queen’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’) 
  • Common name: Mountain Laurel  
  • Botanical name: Kalmia 
  • Family name: Ericaceae 
  • Origin: North America and Cuba

Where to plant Kalmia 

  • Plant Kalmia in full sun if the soil is moist, or light shade.   
  • Plant Kalmia moist, humus-rich, well-drained, acidic soil.  
  • Kalmia grows naturally on slopes.

When to plant Kalmia 

  • Set out container-grown plants in spring or autumn.
  • Layer Kalmia in summer.  
Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia
Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

Planting and spacing Kalmia 

  • Space Kalmia 6 to 8 feet (1.8-2.4m) apart.
  • Amend soil with aged compost or planting mix before setting Kalmia in the ground.

How to water and feed Kalmia 

  • Give Kalmia regular water.  
  • Feed Kalmia with an all-purpose organic fertilizer in spring.

How to care for Kalmia 

  • Kalmia does not need regular pruning, but leggy plants can be pruned hard to stimulate new growth. 
  • Kalmia leaves and flower nectar are poisonous if ingested.   

Kalmia pests and diseases 

  • Kalmia can develop blight, leaf spots, gall, or powdery mildew. 
  • Kalmia can be attacked by scale, weevils, or lace bugs. 

Kalmia propagation 

  • Take Kalmia softwood cuttings in spring. 
  • Note that propagation for Kalmia is difficult. 
  • Layering Kalmia is a sure way to propagate the plant. Layer Kalmia in summer.

Kalmia varieties to grow 

  • Kalmia. angustifolia, Laurel: native to the eastern United States and Canada, this shrub averages 2 feet (.6m) high and spreads by stolons to 10 feet (3m) wide. The oblong, leathery leaves are 2 inches (5cm) long in whorls of three; bears early-summer, saucer-shaped flowers that range from lavender-pink to burgundy, rarely white, and are carried in 2 inch (5cm) clusters. 
  • K. latifolia, mountain laurel, calico bush: native to eastern North America from Canada to Florida, west across the Appalachians into states drained by the Ohio-Mississippi river systems; growing success diminishes the farther west you get, where summer heat, heavy soils do not suit it; success also depends on the plant’s source; plants from southern forms grow better in warmer zones; those from northern seed sources grow better in cold-winter regions; named selections are unlikely to perform well in all zones; slow-growing to 6-8 feet (1.8-2.4m) or taller, with equal spread; glossy, leathery, oval leaves are 3-5 inches (8-13cm) long, dark green on top, yellowish-green beneath; blooms in late spring; typically bears 1 inch (2.5cm) wide light pink flowers opening from darker pink buds, but blossoms often have a subtly different color in their throats and may have contrasting stamens; dlowers are carried in clusters to 5 inches (13cm) across. Cultivars of K. latifolia include: ‘Bay State’ has coral flowers ‘Bullseye’, bears dark purplish red blossoms with white centers; ‘Sarah’ has pinkish red blooms opening from red buds; ‘Carousel’, white flowers, with pink or red inside; ‘Elf’, pink buds, white blooms. 3 feet (.9m) tall; ‘Olympic Fire’ and ‘Otsbo Red’ have deep red buds opening to palest pink flowers; ‘Pinwheel’ produces flowers in a combination of deep red and white; ‘Silver Dollar’, large white flowers.  
  • K. microphylla, western laurel, alpine laurel: low growing plant has spreading branches with erect branchlets, small leaves (dark green above, whitish beneath), and rounded clusters of rose to purple, .5 inch (1.3cm) flowers n summer.; typical high-mountain form is 8-11 inches (20.3-28cm), with leaves up to .75 inch (1.8cm) long; s taller variety (to 2 feet (.6m) tall) with slightly larger leaves is K. occidentalis, it grows in coastal lowlands of California north to Alaska. 

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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