by Mary Reid Barrow
As you walk along the trail at lake Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area, you begin to notice a few mountain laurels, those beautiful big shrubs with clusters of little white flowers that you don’t see around here very often.
Further down the trail, you will start seeing more and more shrubs full of blooms. Then, suddenly, the mountain laurel reaches a crescendo as you come upon a whole thicket of flowers on a woodsy slope leading toward the lake.
To be specific, the thicket is on the northwest side of the southern trail loop at the natural area, but don’t worry, you will find it along with other groups of mountain laurel if you take the full trail walk.
Mountain laurel is not shy at Lake Lawson. It is awesomely apparent.
From afar, the blooms appear mostly white with some pale pink thrown in. Up close a mountain laurel “bloom” turns out to be a cluster of tiny pink or white, cup-shaped flowers. Inside each cup is a design of even smaller reddish-burgundy dots and lines. It is sometimes called a calico flower, because the pattern of dots and lines is reminiscent of calico-patterned material.
in the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora, mountain laurel is marked as a native here in Virginia Beach, but the atlas said the shrub is infrequent in the far Southeastern Coastal Plain. I don’t know of any other public place in the city where you can see it growing wild in such abundance, though you also can see it in bloom in Norfolk at Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Mike Moore with Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation called the mountain laurel one of Virginia Beach’s “Hidden Treasures” in a video that is part of the department’s ”virtual rec center.” “We typically don’t see it east of Charlottesville,” Moore said.
Mountain laurel can grow like a small tree in the wild. Though it’s average height is up to 15 feet, it can grow much taller. It grows in forests and woodlands and likes dry, acidic soil, which is probably why it grows in such abundance on the wooded, well-drained slopes at Lake Lawson.
Mountain Laurel and rhododendron are sometimes confused. Mountain laurel is in bloom now and rhododendron, whose flowers are more azalea-like, blooms ln early summer.
For an added bonus, keep your eyes open for another sweet surprise. Galax, also called beetleweed, is creeping along the forest floor on the trail edges in some places. Some of the Galax also is blooming with pretty white spikey flowers:
I thought the trailing plant was some kind of pennywort when I first saw it. It turns out Galax, also an uncommon native in the coastal plain, often is seen growing in association with mountain laurel.
Somehow, the stars aligned to bring these two uncommon cohorts right here to our own back yard at Lake Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area.
Lake Lawson/Lake Smith Natural Area is at 5381 Shell Road, just off Northampton Boulevard. Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation’s video on mountain laurel can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9W27s-8lMM
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