My maternal grandfather's house stood on a hillside in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The house was built of wood from the trees that were found on his land. As a result of his work, the land was partially cleared and dappled with trees that were left standing all the way to the top of the hillside. It was an easy climb on cleared pathways, and often my Aunt Ruby would take me for long walks. We would get to the top and look down at the way we had come, and in the early summer the mountain laurel bushes wove a tapestry throughout that hillside. Aunt Ruby, who was about 16 at the time, was just like a princess. She was beautiful, and she went on dates with handsome young men. She played the piano and showered me with attention. I believed whatever she told me, and when she said that mountain laurel was a flower of love, I believed her. It was as beautiful as she was.
I have planted many mountain laurel bushes at my home now in western Kentucky, but they never grew for me here in the flatlands. I finally decided they were homesick for their mountains, and gave up all efforts to have them in my garden. I know all about being homesick for the mountains.
Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, is a bushy plant that is native to eastern North America. It grew wild in southeast Kentucky, and is related to the rhodendron. It is an evergreen that is hardy to zone 4. It flowers in its beautiful pinkish white clusters from May till June, and its seeds ripen in September. It grows in rich rocky woods in the shade of decidous trees, and it is pollinated by bees. My granddad had bee hives up on the hill behind his house, and we had honey available for all the years that he lived. The plant is toxic and its leathery green foliage is poisonous to some animals. For that reason some folks think that honey made from the bees that feed from the mountain laurel could also be toxic, but it never seemed to bother any of us all those years ago, and we had honey at every meal.
As I grew older and started roaming the mountains with Aunt Bett we ran across mountain laurel quite often. It was something I always questioned her about, because I loved it so much. She never used it for any of her remedies, but she did tell me what she knew about it. It seems that her Native American ancestors used it as a death potion. She told me stories about young Indian maidens falling in love with the wrong young men from a warring tribe, and eating of the leaves of the mountain laurel because they no longer wanted to live if they could not have the one they loved. She told me that the only way to revive a body that was dying from the mountain laurel poison was to force him to drink enough whiskey to kill the poison. Well, I sure didn't want to be poisoned by the mountain laurel because there was no way I would ever let anybody pour whiskey into me. I had already seen what it did to a few who lived nearby.
It is a remedy seldom used in modern herbalism, but I did learn from Aunt Bett that an infusion of the leaves was used as a disinfectant wash and linament to treat pain, cuts, rheumatism and to get rid of body parasites. At one time, it was also used internally for neuralgia and particularly for tinnitus and various other ear problems. She also told me that the Native Americans often used the fresh soft root to carve spoons from, since it hardened into a spoon shape when dry. They used the wood of the mountain laurel for making small hand tools and often it was used for fuel. The tree, when untended and in a perfect environment can grow to 20 feet in height, but the ones in the mountains rarely grew more than 4 or 5 feet tall. I learned all I could learn about mountain laurel, and treasured its beauty, but one time it almost became my downfall.
Aunt Ruby and I had gone for a hike up the hillside where the mountain laurel grew. It was in full bloom. Aunt Ruby was probably baby sitting me, something I always loved, so we took a little picnic and found a perfect spot under a chestnut tree near the top of the hill. I wasn't very old, and as we sat there on a big blanket, she began to teach me the names of the plants we saw. We were sitting in a clover patch, and for awhile we looked for four leafed clovers. She told me if we found one we would keep it for good luck. Well, good luck was not shining down upon me that day, because just as I reached to pick a clover, a bee landed on my hand. Aunt Ruby swooshed him away and jerked me up to stand beside her. That bee got really angry and he started coming after us again.
Now the fashion of the day must have been long dresses with fully gathered skirts made of lots of fabric. When that bee got close to me, I was screaming like a banshee. Aunt Ruby jerked me to her side and pulled me up under her full gathered skirt and we proceeded to trip like a drunken 4 legged monster down that hillside: me screaming and hanging on to Aunt Ruby's petticoat, and Aunt Ruby yelling, " Get away, bee, I said GET!" I don't know who was more frightened: me, totally blinded by the yards of skirt pulled over me, Aunt Ruby who was so afraid I would get stung, or the bee who probably wondered what he ever did to deserve that monster running in a zigzag all around him. We made it down the hillside, I was still tangled up in the petticoat when we reached the back porch. Aunt Ruby jerked her skirt up, but I would not let go of that petticoat. Mom had come to get me by that time, and she came tearing out of the kitchen to see how badly hurt I was.
I could hear her yelling: "Ruby, what have you done to her, what have you done?" And I kept on screaming while hanging on to Aunt Ruby's petticoat. Before it was over, Gramma Ell and my Pappaw had joined us all on the back porch, and if anybody else had been there, I am sure we would have had a bigger audience. I guess they finally got me pried from the petticoat, and I hope Aunt Ruby told them the real story, because there was not one thing wrong with me. That's probably one of the last times Aunt Ruby ever babysat me, I think she decided I was a whole lot more trouble than I was worth.
Today my Aunt Ruby lives on that same hillside, and whenever I visit her, we wander around the mountain laurel, and we laugh at the memory of the Bee and the Petticoat. Funny how all my mountain memories are associated with plants.
Mountain laurel photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers for the use of their images in this order of appearance: Sarahskeeper for the macro shot of the blooms, woodspirit1 for the distant shot of the laurel bush, claypa for the lovely foliage, and imanerd for the shot of the cluster of blooms.
The last photo is of my Aunt Ruby and me when she was teaching me to play croquet, taken in 1945.