S a child I never doubted that the laurel wreaths of Grecian heroes were made from mountain laurel, and I supposed, of course, that the flowers were used also. My vision was of a hero crowned with huge wreaths of laurel bouquets, which I thought so beautiful. It was a shock to exchange this sumptuous headgear of my dreams for a plain wreath of leaves from the green-bay tree.
However, the mountain laurel leaf is evergreen and beautiful enough to crown a victor; in color it is a rich, lustrous green above, with a yellow midrib, the lower side being of a much lighter color. In shape, the leaf is long, narrow, pointed at each end and smooth-edged, with a rather short petiole. The leaves each year grow on the new wood, which is greenish and rough, in contrast with the old wood, which is rich brownish red. The leaves are arranged below the flower cluster, so that they make a shining green base for this natural bouquet.
The flowers grow on the tips of the branching twigs, which are huddled together in a manner that brings into a mass many flowers. I have counted seventy-five of them in a single bunch; the youngest flowers grow nearest the tip of the twig. The blossom stems are pink, and afford a rich background for the starry open flowers and knobby closed buds. The bud of the laurel blossom is very pretty and resembles a bit of rose-colored pottery; it has a five-sided, pyramidal top, and at the base of the pyramid are ten little buttresses which flare out from the calyx. The calyx is five-lobed, each lobe being green at the base and pink at the point. Each one of the ten little buttresses or ridges is a groove in which a stamen is growing, as we may see by looking into an opening flower; each anther is "headed" toward the pocket which ends the groove. The filament lengthens and shoves the anther into the pocket, and then keeps on growing until it forms a bow-shaped spring, like a sapling with the top bent to the ground. The opening flower is saucerlike, pinkish white, and in form is a five-pointed star. At the bottom of the saucer a ten-pointed star is outlined in crimson; and bowed above this crimson ring are the ten white filaments with their red-brown anthers stuffed cozily into the pockets, one pocket at the center of each lobe, and one half-way between; each pocket is marked with a splash of crimson with spotty edges. From the center of the flower projects the stigma, far from and above the pollen-pockets.
Diagram of flower of laurel.
p, pocket; st, stamen.
Each laurel flower is thus set with ten spring-traps all awaiting the visit of the unwary moth or bee which, when seeking the nectar at the center of the flower, is sure to touch one or all of these bent filaments. As soon as one is touched, up it springs and slings its pollen hard at the intruder. The pollen is not simply a shower of powder, but is in the form of a sticky string, as if the grains were strung on cobweb silk. When liberating these springs with a pencil point, I have seen the pollen thrown a distance of thirteen inches; thus, if the pollen ammunition does not strike the bee, it may fall upon some open flower in the neighborhood. The anthers spring back after this performance and the filaments curl over each other at the center of the flower below the pink stigma; but after a few hours they straighten out and each empty anther is suspended above its own pocket. The anthers open while in the pocket, each one is slit open at its tip so that it is like the leather pocket of a sling.
After the corollas fall, the long stigma still projects from the tip of the ripening ovary, and there it stays, until the capsule is ripe and open. The five-pointed calyx remains as an ornamental cup for the fruit. The capsule opens along five valves, and each section is stuffed with little, almost globular seeds.
The mountain laurel grows in woods and shows a preference for rocky mountain sides or sandy soil.
Another of the common species is the sheep laurel, which grows in swampy places, especially on hillsides. The flowers of this are smaller and pinker than the mountain laurel, and are set below the leaves on the twig. Another species called the pale, or swamp, laurel, has very small flowers, not more than half an inch in breadth and its leaves have rolled-back edges and are whitish green beneath. This species is found only in cold peat-bogs and swamps.
Photo by Verne Morton.
Leading thought—The laurel blossom is set with ten springs, and each spring acts as a sling in throwing pollen upon visiting insects, thus making sure that the visitor will carry pollen to other waiting flowers.
Method—Have the pupils bring to the schoolroom a branch of laurel which shows blossoms in all stages from the bud. Although this lesson is on the mountain laurel, any of the other species will do as well.
1. How are the laurel leaves set about the blossom clusters to make them beautiful? What is the shape of the laurel leaf? What are its colors above and below? How do the leaves grow with reference to the flowers? Do they grow on last year's or this year's wood? How can you tell the new wood from the old?
2. Take a blossom bud. What is its shape? How many sides to the pyramid-like tip? How many little flaring ridges at the base of the pyramid? Describe the calyx.
3. What is the shape of the flower when open? How many lobes has it? What is its color? Where is it marked with red?
4. In the open blossom, what do you see of the ten ridges, or keels, which you noticed in the bud? How does each one of these grooves end? What does the laurel blossom keep in these ten pockets? Touch one of the ten filaments with a pencil and note what happens.
5. Take a bud scarcely open. Where are the stamens? Can you see the anthers? Take a blossom somewhat more open. Where are the anthers now? From these observations explain how the stamens place their anthers in the pockets. How do the filaments grow into bent springs?
6. Are the anthers open when they are still in the pocket? Look at an anther with a lens and tell how many slits it has. How do they open? Are the pollen grains loose when they are thrown from the anther? How are they fastened together? Does this pollen mass stick to whatever it touches?
7. What is the use to the flower of this arrangement for throwing pollen? What insects set free the stamen-springs? Where is the nectar which the bee or moth is after? Can it get this nectar without setting free the springs? Touch the filaments with a pencil and see how far they will sling the pollen.
8. Describe the pistil in the open flower. Is the stigma near the anthers? Would they be likely to throw their pollen on the stigma of their own flower? Could they throw it on the stigmas of neighboring flowers?
9. How does the fruit of the laurel look? Does the style still cling after the corolla falls? Describe the fruit-capsule. How does it open? How do the seeds look? Are there many of them?
10. Where does the mountain laurel grow? What kind of soil does it like? Do you know any other species of laurel? If so, are they found in the same situations as the mountain laurel?
"A childish gladness stays my feet,
As through the winter woods I go,
Behind some frozen ledge to meet
A kalmia shining through the snow.
I see it, beauteous as it stood
Ere autumn's glories paled and fled,
And sigh no more in pensive mood,
'My leafy oreads are all dead.'
I hear its foliage move, like bells
On rosaries strung, and listening there,
Forget the icy wind that tells
Of turfless fields, and forests bare.
All gently with th' inclement scene
I feel its glossy verdure blend;—
I bless that lovely evergreen
As heart in exile hails a friend.
Its boughs, by tempest scarcely stirred,
Are tents beneath whose emerald fold
The rabbit and the snowbound bird
Forget the world is white and cold.
And still, 'mid ruin undestroyed,
Queen arbor with the fadeless crown,
Its brightness warms the frosty void,
And softens winter's surliest frown."
—From "The Mountain Laurel," Theron Brown.