Keeping up with the Kalmias

 

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Some years back I was chatting to a long-time nurseryman (Hello, Peter at Twiglands) and he was lamenting the loss of plant diversity in people’s gardens these days. So many people want the same low-maintenance plants, and by narrowing the range of plants we buy, all sorts of ‘old-fashioned’ plants are at risk of becoming unavailable. He is quite right, by the way. A lack of demand plus pressure from large retailers means that small growers of exotic shrubs and perennials are closing their doors and the lesser-known plants are getting harder and harder to find.

Anyway, I was intrigued by Peter’s use of the term ‘old-fashioned’ plants and asked him to give me an example. He thought for a moment then said ‘Kalmias’. Everyone’s granny used to have a Kalmia, or Calico Bush, in their garden. I had a look at a catalogue and immediately ordered one, out of solidarity, and because it looked lovely, and because there was one called ‘Sarah’.

Kalmia latifolia is the botanical name of the Calico Bush, from North America, and it is grown for its very distinctive clusters of flowers which appear in late spring to early summer. The tightly closed buds look like something you’d find on a coral reef, then the open flowers are like tiny umbrellas. They are absolutely fascinating to look at, and a lovely thing to show to children. The colours range from a pale pink to quite a deep pink opening from red buds. There is even a cultivar called ‘Carousel’ which has purple-striped white flowers.

I planted my Kalmia ‘Sarah’ as advised in a cool, moist position in part-shade, amongst hostas, maples, and rengarengas. Sarah immediately went into a long sulk and did nothing for about 3 years. I was on the verge of pulling her out, when she suddenly decided to start growing and flowering. But I wouldn’t call Sarah pushy. After about 7 or so years, she is still only about 1.2 metres high! I don’t know whether she gets too much sun, not enough, or if there is anything wrong with the soil conditions. But it doesn’t matter. She sits there quietly minding her own business, then at this time of year, you get this:

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Here are the buds still tightly closed, very hard to make out the individual petals at this stage.

and this:

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Worth the wait, I would say.

4 thoughts on “Keeping up with the Kalmias”

  1. Lovely – so glad you waited. Your article makes me now recall these ‘Mountain Laurels’ were a plant I came across in Seattle. I think they were shown to prospective applicants to the Arboretum to see if the newcomer would realise they weren’t a rhododendron and then know what they were, and then could reveal their fabulous plant knowledge. Thanks for reacquainting me with these old-timer plants!

    Like

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