Ericaceae (Heath family)
Description: A medium to large evergreen shrub with a rounded crown and crooked branches with thick, leathery leaves 2-4 in. long, mostly crowded near twig tips. White to pink bowl-shaped flowers in showy clusters 4-6 in. across. Fruit a rounded capsule with numerous wind-dispersed seeds. Flowers Apr.-June; fruits Sept.-Oct., persisting into winter.
Habitat/range: Acidic cove forests, heath balds, river bluffs, and mountain bogs, nearly ubiquitous in mountains, less common in piedmont. Widespread in eastern United States.
Taxonomy: When flowers aren't present, mountain laurel superficially resembles rosebay (Rhododendron maximum) and gorge rhododendron (R. minus), but rosebay has much larger drooping leaves with rolled edges, and gorge rhododendron has dotted glands on its lower leaf surface.
Ecology: Dense thickets of mountain laurel are sometimes referred to as "laurel hell" because the stout, spreading branches are difficult to walk through. Individuals reproduce vegetatively from a spreading root system that grows new shoots, and by layering (low-growing branches buried in leaf litter form roots and additional shoots). Fires typically kill the above-ground plants, but dormant buds on root crowns or rhizomes give rise to new shoots. Mountain laurel grows in full sun to deep shade but flowers best in well-lit areas. The bowl-shaped flowers have tiny pouches enclosing each anther, their bent filaments held under tension. When touched by a large bee, the stamens suddenly spring forward, showering the insect with sticky strands of pollen, which subsequently may be deposited on another flower's stigma, resulting in cross-pollination. If no pollinator visits the flower, the anther filaments will spring as the flower senesces, thereby flinging pollen onto the flower's own stigma, providing a backup mechanism should insect-mediated pollination fail to occur.
Wildlife: Mountain laurel provides good cover for wildlife but has limited value as a food plant because toxic compounds diminish the palatability of its foliage and its fruits are dry.
Uses: Widely used as an ornamental, due to its striking flower clusters and attractive evergreen foliage.
Leucothoe fontanesiana (Steud.) Sleumer
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