Only capable of growing wild in a few select habitats around the world, Kalmia flowers are perhaps better known as the mountain laurel. Growing in clusters of pink or bright white cup-shaped blossoms, they’re a bountiful bloom with a rich history and powerful symbolic value. Here we’ll take you through everything you need to know about Kalmia flower meaning, plus learn about their history and origins, uses and benefits, and cultural significance around the world today.
- Kalmia Flower Meaning – The Essentials
- About Kalmia Flowers
- Uses and Benefits of Kalmia Flowers
- The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Kalmia Flowers
- Suitable Gifting Occasions for Kalmia Flowers
- Kalmia Flower FAQs
Kalmia Flower Meaning – The Essentials
In the language of flowers, the Kalmia carries the symbolic meaning of perseverance due to its growth in tough habitats. It can also symbolize trickery due to its crooked trunks and habit of growing densely together.
About Kalmia Flowers
While Kalmia plants are commonly known as mountain laurel, they aren’t considered a true laurel. It’s called that for having long and narrow leaves similar in appearance to the true bay laurel, Laurus nobilis.
Family, Genus, and Taxonomy
Kalmia is a genus and not the name of a single plant. There are at least 7 plants within the genus, although some are added and subtracted each year due to reorganization. Kalmia falls into the Ericaceae family, which includes heaths, yew, blueberry, and cranberry. Both edible and highly toxic plants are a member of this family, but almost all of them are grown ornamentally in some way.
Botanical Characteristics, Colors, Fragrances
All the Kalmia species feature flowers that bloom in a tightly packed cluster known as a corymb. Anywhere from 10 to 60 flowers can pack into a single cluster, creating a round snowball-like shape. These flower clusters form on the tips of branches and most varieties feature dark, long foliage that contrasts the blooms. The flowers don’t have any particular fragrance and tend to come in white to pink colors.
History & Origins of Kalmia Flowers
Kalmia was once found across the world as proven by the fossil records found in Germany and Poland. However, they’re now limited to only growing in parts of North America and Cuba. This meant that it didn’t spread to Europe and the rest of the world as an ornamental plant until well past the 1800s.
Popular Types, Species, and Cultivars
Since the wild Kalmia species do so well in the southeastern US where they’re mostly native to, the majority of cultivars have been bred to thrive in cooler climates instead. Some popular options include ‘Ostbo Red’, ‘Bullseye’, and the dwarf variety ‘Elf’.
The scientific name Kalmia is derived from the name of the Swedish botanist that first described them in European journals, Pehr Kalm.
The name mountain laurel is drawn from the plant’s resemblance to true laurel species like bay laurel, which are only native to Mediterranean areas. Other common names include spoonwood, despite the fact that the wood is toxic, and calico bush due to the speckled or patterned flowers.
What Regions are Kalmia Flowers Native to?
While there is evidence Kalmia relatives once grew in parts of Europe, today they’re long since extinct there. The current species in the genus are only found in North America and Cuba. Most of the species are limited to the Eastern coast of the US and Canada, with many found in the Appalachian mountain range in particular. Some varieties, such as Kalmia procumbens, only grow on the highest elevations in their native habitat.
When are Kalmia Flowers in Season?
Kalmia varieties vary in their blooming window, but most flower between April to June. They tend to only stay in flower for one to two months, putting on most of their blooms at once and then losing them slowly. They won’t rebloom later in the year unless moved into a greenhouse environment.
Uses and Benefits of Kalmia Flowers
All of the parts of Kalmia are toxic, including the wood and the nectar from the flowers. Even the honey made from the flowers shouldn’t be consumed. Beekeepers raising hives near plantings of the shrubs will often keep their bees fed with sugar water instead during the bloom time, which is limited.
The wood can be used for carving for strictly decorative purposes, despite what the common name spoonwood might suggest.
The flowers are attractive to birds and bees, making them a good planting for pollinators. Consider avoiding them if you have pets or children that might be attracted to the round and food-shaped blooms when they fall.
The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Kalmia Flowers
Common Kalmia Flower Color Meanings
Most Kalmia blooms are a shade of red or white, which lends additional meaning to the flower when it’s used in an arrangement.
- White, which symbolizes purity, recovery, loss, memory, and healing.
- Pink, which symbolizes warmth, affection, friendship, the early stages of love, and youth.
- Red, which symbolizes passionate love, romance, wealth, good health, and new starts.
- Burgundy, which symbolizes luxury, elegance, devoted romance, and wisdom.
Kalmia flowers tend to be patterned or speckled, giving them multiple meanings depending on the color combinations.
Lambskill and Sheepskill Hint at Toxicity
Two of the less pleasant-sounding common names for these shrubs indicate how dangerous they can be to livestock. Settlers who moved into the native ranges of this plant soon found that even a small amount of the leaves or twigs could kill their sheep, young lambs in particular due to their low body weight. This is due to a grayanotoxin in the entire plant, including the nectar. The honey made by bees that visit the flowers can be dangerous to humans as well. Despite its beauty, Kalmia has a dark side that influences the symbolism of its flowers.
Spoonwood Based on Unreliable Folklore
Another myth involving the Kalmia shrub or tree dates back to Dutch settlers who encountered Native Americans living in the range of the plant. These settlers claimed that the natives told them to use the Kalmia wood for carving spoons and other utensils. However, this is unlikely since the wood itself contains toxins and shouldn’t be used in that way. There is little evidence settlers or natives actually carved any spoons, so it has most likely been just a story from the start.
Mountain Laurel Hells
Early settlers in the Appalachian mountains where most of the Kalmia species can be found started to develop names for the dense thickets they formed. One common name was a laurel hell, due to the difficulty of climbing and pushing through the twisted and closely growing trunks of the trees.
A common name for the plant was also mountain ivy, for this reason, a name that also applies to the similar rhododendrons that share the range. Aside from a hell, a tangled thicket of Kalmia might be called a slick. This hints at the challenge and trickery that the plant can symbolize.
A Symbol of Perseverance
Most modern fans of Kalmia flowers use the blooms as a symbol of perseverance. This is due to the plant’s habit of growing in rocky, inaccessible, steep, and high elevation areas. It’s a great way to show a person you’re proud of them for succeeding despite difficult circumstances.
Suitable Gifting Occasions for Kalmia Flowers
Depending on the meaning you prefer to assign to Kalmia, you may want to use them to send a message when you’re unhappy with someone’s behavior. It can help communicate that you felt someone acted evasively or even unfairly due to the deceitful meaning assigned to this flower. For a more positive message, try using it to celebrate someone who has recently overcome adversity instead.
Kalmia is a complex flower with a layered symbolism befitting its unique botanical characteristics. Make it a part of your landscape or your next floral arrangement to appreciate its dual meaning of resilience and deceit.
Kalmia Flower FAQs
What family is Kalmia in?
Kalmia is part of the large and diverse Ericaceae family, which includes relatives as distinct as the edible blueberry and the toxic Yew.
What does the Kalmia flower mean?
Since the flower was limited to the New World, it didn’t receive a meaning in ancient Greek culture or during the Victorian era. Its more modern meanings include perseverance, trickery, and cleverness.
What is Kalmia used for?
As a toxic shrub, its only use is for ornamental purposes. It’s unsafe to eat any part of the plant or use the wood for any purposes other than decorative.
Is Kalmia an evergreen?
All the current species included in the Kalmia genus are evergreens, although their leaves may wilt or shrivel over the winter.
What does the word Kalmia mean?
The name Kalmia comes from the name of Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm.
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Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.