REFLECTIONS IN NATURE: Mountain laurel
The mountain laurel, which is in bloom now, became Pennsylvania’s state flower by Act 107 on May 5, 1933.
Gifford Pinchot, who was the “father” of American forest conservation, nominated it. His wife, Cornelia, then successfully used her influence to have the legislators vote for the plant.
During the middle of June, pink buds appear on the mountain laurel plant and, as they begin to open, white flowers are revealed. As the flowers mature, they once again turn pink.
Each flower blooms in a cluster about 6 inches across, with a small crimson star marking the center.
The plant has a very unusual way of cross-pollinating — it sets a trap for insects entering the flowers. When the fully matured stamens are bent over and hooked lightly to the corolla walls, they are under such pressure that the weight of a bee landing on a flower releases the trap, causing the stamens to spring upward and douse the bee with pollen.
The pollen grains, which are sticky, assure their being carried to the next flower.
The No. 1 pollinator of the laurels usually is the bumblebee.
In the wild, laurel grows in the most inhospitable places, such as rocky areas and especially under the shade of oaks, where soil acidity is high.
Mountain laurel grows in three ways:
• A spreading root system that sends up new shoots;
• Layering, which occurs when the branches touch the ground and send down a root, and
• From seeds.
Mountain laurel stands often become so thick it is almost impossible to walk through them.
Many years ago, our family went to the Kellogg Mountain to look for manmade stone pyramids about which I had heard stories. We learned that they actually were piles of stone that a farmer had stacked when clearing his land many years before. We also saw thick stands of mountain laurel in full bloom that day and what a beautiful sight they were.
We also saw and heard hundreds and hundreds of gypsy moths chomping on the leaves of the forest trees. The sound they made was almost deafening, but they did not appear to be eating the leaves of the mountain laurel.
The gypsy moth, which is native to Europe and Asia, is an invasive moth that defoliates hundreds of acres of forests from New England west to Michigan and south to Virginia and on the West Coast from California to British Columbia.
The gypsy moth was introduced to the United States in 1869 by Leopold Trouvelot, a French artist, astronomer and amateur entomologist. He imported eggs of this species to Medford, Massachusetts, with the idea of breeding a silk-spinning caterpillar that would be more resistant to disease than the domesticated silkworm.
Unfortunately, the caterpillars escaped into his backyard. About 10 years later, the caterpillars began to appear in large swarms and, by the late 1880s, they were causing severe defoliation in the area.
So far this year, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has sprayed 46,000 acres, which is down significantly from 136,000 acres last year.
While gypsy moth numbers appear to be in a down cycle for 2017 — the cold, damp spring helped — DCNR says the problem still is significant. The most deeply affected regions include northeastern Pennsylvania, including Carbon, Luzerne, Lehigh and Northampton counties. Small portions of Cumberland, Dauphin, Juniata and Perry counties also will be or have been sprayed.
After hatching in May from buff-colored egg masses deposited on tree trunks or in more sheltered places, the tiny (quarter-inch-long) caterpillars almost immediately climb upward toward sunlight and begin to feed on the leaves.
Many will begin to spin long silken threads on which they drop from the foliage. The wind then helps in dispersing the caterpillars to other trees, resulting in redistribution of the larvae.
Once the caterpillars find a suitable tree — oak, birch and apple trees are favorites — they begin eating the leaves, growing rapidly and molting their skins to accommodate their increasing size.
Mountain laurel is more beneficial to wildlife as cover than it is as food. Deer are known to feed on it, which is said to raise their body temperature during a prolonged cold spell. Without ill effects, deer can feed upon it as a last resort against starvation.
However, other wild and domestic animals will become sick and sometimes die from eating mountain laurel due to the plant’s leaves and stems containing chemicals that are toxic to most animals.
There is a persistent myth that the designation of being a state flower affords mountain laurel a protected status; however, this is not true. No one is allowed to remove any plant from public or private land without permission from the landowner.
There are no legal restrictions on the cultivation of mountain laurel. And there are many good reasons to grow and enjoy Pennsylvania’s state flower.
If you haven’t seen the mountain laurel as yet, I’m fairly sure that a ride through the mountains in the next few days still will allow you to see our state flower in bloom.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.