Design by Michaelangelo…

If the famous Italian inventor and artist were to design a wildflower combining color as well as mechanical devices worthy of awe and acclaim, the Mountain Laurel could be the result. The state wildflower of Connecticut, the seventh alphabetical state, is such an apparition incorporating the best of beauty and design. The opening bud of the sometimes pink, occasionally red, and mostly white blossom doesn’t just open as most flower buds do, but twists in pinwheel fashion to show shades of color from deeper reds to pink and white. As if this mechanical gyration wasn’t enough to get our attention, the stamens have a trigger that flicks pollen onto a visiting pollinator. Like a Michaelangelo design, the bud unfolds and then efficiently spreads pollen to insure its survival.

Note the pinwheel buds and the stamens under tension just waiting to flick pollen on an incoming bee.

I planted a Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia, in my yard twenty years ago and it slowly grew into a stately shrub and thrilled us every Spring with its pink and white floral display. The Laurel is native to the Appalachian mountains from Maine, through Connecticut, to Mississippi and the white blossom provides a stunning contrast against the dark glossy leaves. Native Americans used the leaves to lessen arthritic pains and to soothe scratches from blackberry brambles. They also worked the wood into lasting spoons and gave it an appropriate name – Spoonwood. Be careful though, every part of the plant is toxic to humans and animals and honey made from the Laurel can be a serious poison. I wonder how Spoonwood utensils were made usable?

A closeup of the stamen catapults poised for a welcome intruder.
From the color palette worthy of Michaelangelo comes a mechanical untwisting of red and pink.

Native companions include the Great White Rhodendron, a distant relative, as well as the Pinkster Azalea, and on the forest floor, Clinton’s Lily.

The Great White Rhododendron blooms at the same time as the Laurel.
Swallowtail butterflies visiting a Laurel companion – the Pinxter Azalea.
Clinton’s Lilly is often overlooked as its greenish-yellow flowers blend into the forest floor next to blooming Laurel.

At the highest levels in the Smoky Mountain National Park in mid-June, you will be amazed at the mix of Laurel, Flame Azalea, Purple Azalea, and Blueberry bushes.

Is that a Flame Azalea alit in the midst of Pinxters and Lauels? It is!

It is time to move on from our Appalachian highlands to the coastal plains and fields of Delaware – our next alphabetical state. Delaware does not have an official “wildflower” but its state flower is just as compelling.

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