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It’s in your nature: Laurels

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    Too often taken for granted, take a closer look at the beautiful mountain laurel blooms. This should explain why it was selected as Pennsylvania’s state flower. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    A June 2 hike this year found me enjoying the birds and especially the mountain laurel lined wooded lanes.

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    Rhododendron flowers appear around July 1 each year. They are considerably different from the mountain laurel flowers. Some will still have their blooms when this column is published. 

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    North-facing slopes, mountain stream sides, and even the road sides of much of northern Carbon County supports dense thickets of rhododendrons.

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    A pair of ovenbirds (male with his “hackle” raised) were quite disturbed at my presence. Apparently, the white pine I sat next to for an hour was too near their ground nest.

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    A rhododendron’s leaves curl inward in very cold temperatures to lessen surface area to reduce water loss.

Published July 13. 2019 05:37AM

My father was an excellent tinsmith, but it was not his whole life. He loved hunting and fishing, and if not doing either, talking about his experiences outdoors consumed more of his time. I remember one story about black bear shot in Carbon County (Hell Hollow) and how many men it took to get it out of the laurels. He also mentioned some “old timers” who hunted snowshoe hares in the Poconos in the hares’ favorite haunts, the laurels. Well most of those “old timers” didn’t take botany classes, and what they were actually referring to were rhododendrons. Let’s try to help you distinguish between them.

Our state flower is the mountain laurel. It is found almost everywhere in our state’s forested areas and does have beautiful flowers. It only remains in bloom for about four weeks beginning in late May through early June. The flower petals nearly enclose the flower, unlike the separate petals of the larger rhododendron flowers. Mountain laurel can grow in dense patches but not the tangled growths like rhododendron.

Penn Forest Township in particular is beautified by the laurel’s blooms. Mountain laurel grows better in dryer habitats with its leaves reaching a little over 4 inches in length. Its leaf color is a more pale green with a slight yellowish tint. Mountain laurel leaves and stems are toxic. However white-tailed deer will eat them in moderation.

Rhododendrons, in contrast, prefer more moist soil conditions and are more likely to grow in very dense thickets on the north sides of “Penn’s Woods” ridges. Rhododendrons’ trunks probably grow two times larger than laurels; their leaves can reach almost 10 inches, and are a much deeper green color.

Rhododendrons bloom about a month later with its larger flowers appearing soon after the mountain laurel petals have fallen. Rhododendrons and mountain laurel are both members of the heath family with rhododendron species found on almost every continent, especially Asia.

Many sources claim that deer don’t usually eat the “rhodos’ ” leaves but I will disagree. In fact, if you drive in areas of large rhododendron “patches” you can see an obvious browse line where the deer have nipped off the leaves easiest to reach. While hiking on my winter, snow-covered stomping grounds, I see deer trails in the snow leading to the rhododendrons and I can easily see where they browsed off the leaves.

If you wish to see dense stands of rhododendrons, drive along Drake’s Creek or walk along Stony Creek, Mud Run or along the Pohopoco Creek below the Beltzville Dam breast.

Both the mountain laurel and rhododendrons offer refuge for deer and grouse from winter’s howling winds and offer good nesting sites for many of our forest birds. But beside those practical values, we get to enjoy the beautiful blooms from late May until mid-July.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: There are about ____ species of rhododendrons worldwide. A. 50, B. 100, C. 400, D. 1,000.

Last week’s trivia answer: The short-tailed shrew is neither a rodent nor does it live underground. It has a poisonous saliva and forages just under the leaf litter.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

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