Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, calico-bush, ivybush, spoonwood. Connecticut’s state flower thrives in rocky woods and acidic soil, tolerant of sun and shade, hardy through the hardest winter. It is a native plant perfectly representative of this often harsh, yet always (eventually) rewarding land.
An evergreen shrub in the heath family, it grows up to fifteen feet high, its woody branches twisting into an unwieldy thicket. (In Appalachia, where it is also native and grows much taller, they call these vast tangles “laurel hells.” I have read that some particularly intractable hells are named for men they once devoured.) It is poisonous when eaten, but Native Americans have used its leaves as medicine and its wood for spoons, a skill the Colonists soon copied. The first Europeans in America were taken with it: Henry Hudson and John Smith described it in the early 1600s, and though wild and common here, it was sent back to Europe as an ornamental plant and is still used by gardeners today. (More facts: it is a relative of blueberries and cranberries; it is also the state flower of Pennsylvania; it can be made into a fence.) Its scientific name comes from Swedish botanist Pehr (aka Peter) Kalm, who sent a sample to Linnaeus in the mid-18th century.
In the spring – sometimes in late May, usually in mid-June – clusters of pink buds appear against the broad dark leaves. They expand into delicate petal teacups, pink or white with deeper pink accents that make them look awake, alert. The pastel explosion is brief and subtle but wonderful, a sort of soft opening for those hot and humid Connecticut summers when showier flowers prevail.
Mountain laurel, officially designated as the state flower by the General Assembly in 1907, can be found across the state by roadsides and in woods. (You will sometimes see, in descriptions of local forests, references to a “mountain laurel understory,” like a recurring motif in the sprawling novel that is Connecticut.) But my favorite place to view mountain laurel is in Union, at a site I first wrote about in 2013 and have been fond of ever since.
The Mountain Laurel Sanctuary, a section of Nipmuck State Forest, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1935. Many of the features we now associate with Connecticut’s state parks and forests – those gently winding roads, sturdy dams, picnic pavilions, and distinctive stone buildings – we owe to this New Deal program, established to employ young men and support their families in the wake of the Great Depression. Across the country, CCC workers – more than 3 million of them nationwide, between the ages of 17 and 28 – shaped outdoor recreation as we know it.
The places we go to when we go outside, that seem so harmonious with their surrounding landscapes, feel that way because they were built from it and for it: structures in Connecticut state parks are made of local fieldstone, and the state flower is carefully preserved along a gravel road in a rural northern town.
It’s a simple attraction: a wide, mostly flat path, roughly a mile long, cuts through the flowering shrubs, which tower over you as you walk or drive. On either side, bunches of pale pink and white blooms contrast with the green and grey of the forest beyond. It is very quiet – Union is Connecticut’s least populated town, and I’ve never seen more than a few visitors to the Sanctuary at any one time – unless you count the sound of the birds singing. Go for the history, go for the walk in clean open air, or – if it’s a sunny day in late spring or early summer – go to experience the short-lived profusion of color.
The sanctuary is located on Snow Hill Road in Union. It’s technically a part of the Nipmuck State Forest, but don’t follow your GPS to the main forest entrance or you’ll end up driving at least ten minutes in the wrong direction and getting thoroughly confused. Instead, just head to Snow Hill Road (off Route 190/Buckley Highway, near the I-84 interchange) and you’ll see the sign. Once there, you may park at the side of the road at any point. While the mountain laurel is very pretty as a drive-thru experience, I recommend getting out and walking along the road to get a better look.