By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
If you live in the eastern United States, you will have seen mountain laurel on hikes in mixed woodlands. This native plant produces astonishing flowers in late spring. You can grow mountain laurel from seed or cuttings and produce one of these lovely bushes for your own garden. Continue reading to find out how to plant mountain laurel seeds along with some tips for optimal success.
Kalmia latifolia, or mountain laurel, blooms May through June, with bursts of flowers lasting up to three weeks. Each flower develops into a seed capsule. Mountain laurel seed propagation requires conditions that match the wild ones in which the seeds will germinate. These include site, temperature, soil and moisture.
Growing mountain laurel from seed starts with harvest and acquisition. After bloom, the plant develops five chambered, globe-shaped capsules. When ripe and dried, they burst open and release seeds in autumn. Strong winds disperse the seed to other sites.
When seeds reach a favorable location and undergo several altering conditions, they will grow. For instance, the seeds of mountain laurel require cold stratification over the winter to break dormancy and germinate in spring. The amount of moisture and light will also increase germination time.
Cut pods and place them in a paper bag to harden further. Then shake the bag to allow seeds to fall into the bottom of the bag.
Once you have harvested seeds, they should be sown almost immediately outdoors to allow the cold experience. Alternatively, you can sow them in containers and place in the refrigerator or simply chill seeds in a closed bag and plant in spring.
The seeds need to experience temperatures of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C.) for 3 months. When temperatures warm to at least 74 Fahrenheit (24 C.), germination can occur. Growing mountain laurel from seed also requires light for germination as well as average moisture. Seeds are surface sown to allow for the light requirement.
In addition to surface sowing, cold pre-treatment and light, mountain laurel seed propagation also needs an exacting growing medium. While potting soil might suffice, experts recommend moistened sand to germinate the seed.
Germination takes 1 to 2 weeks. Once germinated and achieving their second set of true leaves, transplant seedlings to humus rich soil. You can make this by mixing half potting soil and half compost.
Seedlings must be kept moist, but not soggy, at all times. Before planting them outdoors, pre-condition them by hardening them off for several days. Plant outdoors after all danger of frost has passed in a sunny location with moist but well-draining soil.
This article was last updated on
Read more about Mountain Laurel
Do you remember grape-flavored Kool-Aid or grape lollipops? Wouldn’t you like that luscious scent in your garden? If you are also looking for a small, native tree or large bush to bring to your garden this spring, give the fragrant native Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora, a try! It is also known as Mescal Bean, but it is not related to mescal, which is derived from particular agave plants and is the basis for tequila.
Texas Mountain Laurel Seeds are highly poisonous if swallowed, so keep away from children and pets.
Texas Mountain Laurel is a native evergreen shrub that can be trained as a multi-trunked small tree. It can be pruned to keep it shrub-like. While it can reach 30’ tall if given lots of water, it usually holds in the more manageable and desirable 10’ to 15’ range and gets about 10’ wide. It is highly drought tolerant after getting established for a year or two and is cold tolerant to about 10°F. It prefers poor, rocky soil, but is tolerant of any well-drained soil. It is native to central Texas, running west to New Mexico and south to central Mexico. Unsheared Texas Mountain Laurels make excellent informal screens or hedges, but it can also serve as a lovely accent tree in a tight space. Planting lighter color or contrasting color plants in front really accents the dark green, leathery foliage.
Texas Mountain Laurels are slow growers with dark green, glossy, compound leaves and drooping clusters of purply-blue flowers. Flowers range from dark violet to bluish-lavender to, rarely, white and waft a powerful, sweet, grape fragrance over considerable distances. The bloom clusters can be 3″ to 7″ long, appearing in February into March, and are very showy, but they are poisonous if ingested. However, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators love their nectar! Deer steer clear of Texas Mountain Laurel. If you discover your tree is not blooming come spring, it is likely the flower spikes were pruned off. They form quickly in the spring right after the current year’s flowers finish – odd-looking knobby growths – so be watchful in your pruning.
The fruit of Texas Mountain Laurel appears in a semi-woody, felty, gray pod which ages to dark brown when the seeds are ready to be planted. Collect the seeds in mid- to late summer when the pods have dried and darkened and the seeds are bright red, although it is all right to leave the seed pods on the tree over winter, harvesting and planting the next spring when the soil is warm. You can separate the seeds from the pod and store in a cool, dry place. Soaking them in warm water to soften the shell around the seed and then scarifying the shells with a file or knife increases your chances of success. You can also harvest unripe seeds – when the seed shells are pinkish – in late June or early July. Plant these seeds immediately and they should sprout quickly. Plant seeds directly in the ground or in pots large enough to accommodate root growth for the first year (1 gallon). Older Texas Mountain Laurels don’t take transplanting well – they develop a long taproot that often gets cut. Be careful to not disturb the root ball if you transplant one. Seedlings grow slowly for the first two years, so don’t be in a rush! They are worth the wait! If you want to attempt a head start, cuttings from young trees may root as well. Remember, this tree is native to drier regions, so after it’s established – the first year or two – don’t overwater it. Rainfall should be enough, except in times of severe drought.
Texas Mountain Laurels are not bothered by many pests however, the Genista moth larvae can decimate the foliage on a full-grown tree in a few days. At the first sight of caterpillars (when they are still small), use a foliar spray of Bt – Bacillus thurengiensis. It is essential to cover both the upper and lower sides of all the leaves. Bt has a short residual time on a plant, so it may be necessary to spray repeatedly to destroy an infestation. Insecticides containing Spinosad formulations are useful for larger caterpillars or heavy infestations and some formulations are registered as organic. These have a longer residual on the plant than Bt.
The lacquer-like orange, red, or even maroon seed shells are beautiful and were prized by Native Americans for decorating clothing and ceremonial uses. The seeds inside the extremely hard shell contain an alkaloid known as cytisine or sophorine, which is highly poisonous if swallowed. It is related to nicotine and is a narcotic and hallucinogen. Keep away from children and pets to be safe!
Mescal bean pods at least 6500 years old have been found in west Texas and Mexican archeological digs at caves and rock shelters. The colorful seed shells have been found used as decoration on cloth remnants, while seeds were found in trash deposits and in medicine and/or hunters’ pouches. Evidence has been found in some areas of the use of mescal beans as medicine or in narcotic drinks as part of religious rituals, as well as religious societies formed around these rituals. A yellow dye can also be made from the sapwood.
Whether you want a grape-y sensory flight back to childhood, a beautiful flowering shrub or small tree in your landscape, or a connection with Native American rituals and lifestyles – consider adding a Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secudiflora) to your landscape! You will love it! Now, I’m off to find a grape lollipop….
Mountain Laurel, Mescalbean The Virtual Museum of Texas’ Cultural Heritage (a branch of The University of Texas at Austin, College of Liberal Arts)
Q: The seed pods on the mountain laurel are so ugly. Does it matter if we cut them off?
A: No, it won’t hurt the plant at all.
Q: We have decided to build a concrete driveway. It will be 20 feet from our magnificent live oak tree. I have started digging out the area and am noticing a fair number of oak roots. Will the driveway hurt the tree? If we remove a minimum amount of roots under the driveway, will the roots expand and crack the driveway?
A: You didn’t say how much of the total area will be affected, but at 20 feet away and assuming it affects 30 percent of the root area, the tree should do fine. Your decision not to cut all roots under the driveway should help the tree survive with minimal stress and should not threaten the driveway. Live oaks are one of the most tolerant trees when it comes to root disruption due to construction.
Q: What are the thin-shaped flying insects feeding on our grape vine? Do we need to control them?
A: Sharpshooters are being reported sucking the juice from grape foliage. They won’t kill the vine, but they will discolor the leaves and may reduce the vine’s ability to fill out a grape crop this summer. Consider controlling the sharpshooters with Sevin or malathion. Follow label directions.
Q: I saw the strangest thing the other day. A canyon wren nested in our porch light. When the baby bird emerged, it was a large, coarse-looking bird that did not look anything like a wren. What could have happened?
A: The hatchling is probably a cowbird. They lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and other small birds, such as wrens. The foster parents bring up the intruder at the expense of the baby wrens, which may have been pushed out of the nest early in the process by the baby cowbird.
Q: We are mowing our Bermuda grass at 3 inches tall. Our neighbor says it is too high. He says the lawn will look better and be less weedy if we mow it at 1.5 inches. What is your advice?
A: I agree with your neighbor. Golf courses in our area use Bermuda grass and mow it at a half inch tall. At one and a half inches, it makes a tight sod and competes better with the weeds. Bring it down to this height gradually over a month.