Some of the most beautiful garden flowers we grow thrive in acid soil conditions. Fortunately, much of the eastern half of America has that kind of soil, so gardeners there can enjoy azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias – and the mountain laurel. If you haven’t heard of these beautiful shrubs, it is time you did. Blooming a little later than most azaleas and rhododendrons, they extend the flowering season in shady parts of the garden, with weeks and weeks of color from both the buds and open flowers. It has been comparatively recently that garden varieties of this American wild plant have been developed, but one of the earlier ‘oldies but goodies’ that everyone still loves in the Olympic Flame Mountain Laurel. If you don’t have the right soil, no problem – grow it in a pot, where it will be happy for years.
The Olympic Flame Mountain Laurel is an evergreen shrub with an upright, rounded form. In the garden it will grow to 4 or 5 feet in height, and perhaps 4 feet wide – in a planter it will be smaller. Even when not in flower the foliage is excellent. The smooth oval leaves are glossy and leathery, between 3 and 5 inches long, and with an attractive wavy edge. The leaves give the plant a nice dense look, and it is attractive every day of the year. Older plants may develop a woody, gnarled base, which only adds to their appeal.
The flower buds develop in winter, as small red clusters among the leaves at the tips of every branch. As these develop in the spring they become clusters of pointed, deep raspberry-pink buds, which are incredibly attractive in their own right. The flowers open to reveal a five-sided cup shaped bloom, in a bright light pink. The prominent stamens spread out like a star and make a gorgeous bloom, one inch across. The clusters are densely packed with many flowers, and with every stem topped with blooms the effect is spectacular and very showy. Flowering takes place in late May and early June, just when there are not so many other shrubs in bloom, and it lasts for weeks.
With its neat form and attractive evergreen foliage, the Olympic Flame Mountain Laurel can be used as you would use an evergreen bush like cherry laurel, but with the bonus of wonderful flowers. Around your home in the foundation planting, for structure in your beds, along a path, or beneath shade trees – these are all great places to plant this bush. Add it to shady areas where you grow azaleas or camellias – they all enjoy the same environment and conditions. If you don’t have the necessary acid soil, rather than attempting to change that (which is rarely successful for long), grow this plant in pots, containers and planter boxes. That way you can move it to control the light levels, and to place it in a prominent spot when it is in flower. It will thrive in a planter for at least 5 years, and often longer. Use a pot with drainage holes, and plant in a soil blended for acid-loving plants. Use liquid fertilizer for acid-loving plants regularly, and you can enjoy this gorgeous bush even if you don’t have the best soil for it in your garden.
Grow the Olympic Flame Mountain Laurel in full sun in cooler zones, if there is constant soil moisture. Partial shade is best, with morning sun and afternoon shade, and this bush will also grow in light full shade, beneath trees, in the woodland areas it loves so much. The soil should be acidic, with a pH value below 6, and preferably between 5.5 and 4.5. It should be rich but well-drained, and sandy soils are preferred. Heavy clay is difficult for this plant, but if you add plenty or organic material, and plant in raised beds, or on slopes, then it is still possible to grow it – it is certainly worth a little effort. Mulch in spring or fall with rich, lime-free materials, such as rotted leaves or peat moss, or compost made without lime. This will keep the roots cool and moist, and it is very beneficial. This bush needs no pruning, and it keeps its neat form naturally. The only attention needed is to remove the spent flower heads as they fade. The seed heads are not very attractive and preventing seeding will encourage plenty of buds for the following spring.
The Olympic Fire Mountain Laurel is a unique form of the mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia. Also called ‘calico flower’ and ‘spoonwood’, this native plant grows naturally across the eastern half of the country, from southern Maine to northern Florida. Found carpeting the forest floor in mountainous regions, or growing on slopes, it is a shrub up to 15 feet tall, and sometimes a tree to 30 feet. For many years it was mostly ignored as a garden plant, until a handful of enthusiasts started breeding and selecting seedlings with special features and richer colors. The variety called ‘Olympic Fire’ was discovered in 1966 by John Eichelser from Olympia, Washington. It was one of a batch of seedlings he grew from a much older variety from 1940, called ‘Ostbo Red’. It was introduced to gardeners in 1978 and it has proved it value as a variety that is always popular and in great demand. We have a limited supply of premium-grade plants, but they will soon be sold to other clients, so order now while we still have stock available.