Tag Archives: calico plant

Plant Collector: Kalmia latifolia “Nipmuck”

Kalmia latifolia “Nipmuck”

Just when all the spring flowering trees and shrubs have passed over and we move into early summer, the kalmias open. They look as if they belong in the spring group and they like to grow in similar conditions to rhododendrons and camellias but their blooms take us into December. This one has the rather odd name of “Nipmuck” and is the darkest variety we grow. I failed to find out how it came by its name but would guess it may derive from the indigenous people of America.

In leaf, these slow growing, evergreen shrubs are pretty anonymous. But when the buds appear, they look like piped icing such as often adorns wedding cakes, opening to little cups, chalices maybe. The backs of the petals are white with just the red shading through from the inside.

Kalmias are native to North America, though only to the east coast where they stretch from Canada to as far south as Mexico. Locals call them the Calico Plant or Mountain Laurel. Most of the prized garden selections are forms of latifolia which is hardy. In other words it won’t be harmed by cold winters of the type we get in New Zealand, even inland, southern areas. They belong to the ericaceae family.

There is nothing rare about kalmias but they are very difficult to propagate from cutting so you may find them hard to source. When you do find them for sale, be prepared to pay a decent price for one. Cheap plants are cheap to produce so difficult ones should command a higher value.

From 2009, Kalmia Ostbo Red.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Flowering this week – Kalmia latifolia “Ostbo Red”

Kalmia Ostbo Red with its look of piped icing rose buds

If ever there was a cake decoration flower, it is the kalmia. The buds look pretty much like piped icing rose buds right through to the point where they finally open to a pastel shaped cup with deeper colouring on the underside. These flowers are also successful cut for a vase indoors, lasting a fair time in water.

Kalmias are evergreen members of the heath family, growing here in similar conditions to rhododendrons (they like an acid soil) and coming into flower just as the rhododendrons are largely over. They are native to the eastern seaboard of North America from Canada to Mexico so are tolerant of a wide range of temperatures but generally we would describe them as very hardy. Americans often refer to them as the Calico Plant or Mountain Laurel. Over time, they will grow to about 1.5 metres high but they are pretty slow growing.

Kalmias are not rare but they are not often available in garden centres simply because they are notoriously difficult from cutting. Sometimes plants will come in a rush through tissue culture (micro propagation) in which case you should buy on sight because you don’t know when they will be offered again. If you know of somebody with a plant you can grow them by layering (we did an Outdoor Classroom on the topic about six weeks ago) or if you find any seed on a plant, they are straightforward and reasonably consistent from seed although you will get some variation from the parent. Alas some of the common named varieties don’t set much, if any, seed at all.