Elf Mountain Laurel
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The Elf Kalmia is a small evergreen bush reaching 3 feet tall and wide. It has attractive dark-green glossy foliage, and a compact, mounded form. During winter attractive clusters of pink buds develop and grow larger through early spring. In late May these open into pure white blooms, making a wonderful and prolific display. Grow this plant with plants like rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias to add blooms in early summer. Grow it around your home, in garden beds and in woodland areas.
Plant the Elf Kalmia in partial shade, with morning sun, or in light full shade like building shadows or beneath deciduous trees. Grow it in acid soil with a pH below 6.0, or in planters with soil for acid-loving plants. Good drainage is needed, and avoid heavy clay or wet areas. Steady moisture is desirable, but established plants have some drought resistance. Pests, diseases or deer don’t make problems, and dead-heading is the only care needed.
If you have acidic soil in your garden, then you are probably already familiar with rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias – you are perhaps already growing these lovely plants. There are many other plants that grow in acid soil, and one stands out as just as beautiful as those lovely bushes – the Kalmia, or Mountain Laurel. This wonderful native plant is beautiful in the wild, but dedicated breeders have also given us outstanding garden varieties that bring months of beauty to acid-soil gardens, and can also be grown in pots if you aren’t fortunate enough to have the right garden soil. With more and more of us gardening in small spaces, pride of place has to go the the Elf Kalmia – a shrub whose beauty is much greater than its size. If you don’t know these great shrubs, start small and discover how very special they are, by growing this terrific bush in your own garden – falling in love is always easy.
The Elf Kalmia is a rounded evergreen shrub that grows steadily, reaching about 3 feet tall and wide within 10 years. It has many branches that grow from the base, which in time becomes thick and gnarled, with peeling bark, giving a wonderful look of maturity and permanence. When young the growth is vigorous, slowing down as it matures. The small leaves are leathery, about 2 inches long, with a smooth glossy surface and a rich green color that stays all year round. Out of flower this plant is as attractive as any foliage evergreen, and it always looks great.
Of course it is the blooms that are the big attraction, and these begin to be visible even in fall and early winter. Clusters of buds develop at the end of every branch, looking at first like a cluster of tiny curled fingers, and then developing through winter into pink buds, shaped like many-sided cones. These add lots of interest and color, really extending the time of special interest. By the end of May and into June – after the first flush of spring blooms is over – these buds open, and the Elf Kalmia is smothered in pure white, like a summer snowfall. Each bud opens into a white flower an inch across, shaped like a 5-sided cup, holding within it a prominent star of tiny stamens. The blooms of Kalmia are unique and extraordinary, and if you don’t know them you are in for a treat. The combination of pink buds and white flowers as the first ones open is especially charming, and blooms stay attractive for several weeks.
Think of the Elf Kalmia as an evergreen for garden structure, that has the bonus of gorgeous blooms. Use it around your home in the foreground of your foundation planting. Grow it at the corners of your beds, or along a path. It fits perfectly into any garden bed, beneath trees and in more natural wooded areas. It even makes an attractive potted plant with a unique look.
This bush is hardy in all the mild and warmer parts of the country. In zone 5 water deeply just before periods when the ground freezes, to protect from foliage burn.
Every garden has shady places, and that is where the Elf Kalmia loves to be – it’s a combination made in heaven. A spot with morning sun and shade in the afternoon is perfect, or in continuous light shade, such as the shadow of a building or fence, or in the light, open shade beneath deciduous trees. Good drainage is the secret to success with kalmia, and clay soils are usually not suitable. Open, more sandy soils are preferred, but ordinary garden soil enriched with lime-free organic material is great. The soil must be acidic, with a pH of 6.0 or less, with 5.5 to 4.5 being ideal. If you don’t have suitable soil (and you can test it easily), the simplest answer is to grow it in a pot, using potting soil for acid-loving plants.
Very little care is needed to grow this superb shrub. It generally has no pests or diseases, and deer don’t bother with it, as all parts of this plant are poisonous. Don’t trim or prune, as this will stop flowering. The only care you might do is to remove the spent flower heads, cutting or snapping them out as you might do for rhododendrons, without removing any leaves. This prevents seeds developing, and increases blooms for the next year.
You will find the mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, all through the east, from southern Maine to northern Florida. Wild plants are found on mountain slopes and beneath the trees in forests, and they can be up to 15 feet tall. Among wild plants there are some that have small leaves, and these are called myrtifolia, which means ‘leaves like myrtle bushes’. It was plants like these that Richard A. Jaynes used to develop compact small varieties of kalmia. Jaynes is a professional geneticist and breeder, who worked at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. There he bred some of the world’s best kalmias, and became an authority on these wonderful plants. He created the variety he called ‘Elf’ in the 1970s, and released it in 1982, shortly before he set up the Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut to specialize in his great love – the mountain laurel.
Plants like this rival the best of the azaleas, and no acid garden should be without them. Order now, because the demand is always huge, and these plants are hard to reproduce (but easy to grow), so supplies are always very limited.