A Sanctuary For The State Flower

I have a love-hate relationship with Rosa multiflora. Even if you don't know anything about the outdoors, chances are you've seen this invasive plant, which is now in full bloom everywhere, from the roadside to yards to state parks.

The only thing I love about multiflora rose, an import from the Far East once used for erosion control and to beautify highways, is its incredible scent.

One of its worst features, besides crowding out native shrurbs and trees, is its resemblance to mountain laurel, the state flower. Both have showy white flowers in clusters, and the multiflora rose has fooled me with its laurel masquerade many times this spring.

Last week, reaching my multiflora rose limit, it was time for my first visit to the state Mountain Laurel Sanctuary in the Nipmuck State Forest in Union. Here the native shrubs — also known as calico bush, mountain ivy and spoonwood — grow to heights of 10 to 12 feet along a gravel path known as Snow Hill Road. And there's not a multiflora rose in sight.

The mountain laurel has been the state flower since 1907 — Pennsylvania also made it the state flower in 1933 — and is a lot easier to find than say, the state mammal (the sperm whale), or the state mineral (garnet).

There are a lot of myths surrounding mountain laurel, or Kalmia latifolia. One states that mild temperatures and lack of snow cover will give you quite a mountain laurel show in the spring. But it was a cold winter with plenty of snow cover. There is also the myth that there is never two consecutive years of prolific blossoming. But this year's showing has been just as good as last year.

According to an informational kiosk in the sanctuary, the mountain laurel's name "came from the settlers who noticed a resemblance to an unrelated laurel plant that is found in Europe. Spoons and other small utensils used to be carved out of the wood of mountain laurel so the name spoonwood can be used when referring to this shrub."

Visitors to the sanctuary can drive through the preserve or park anywhere along the road and walk. I recommend walking through and watching the wind swaying the blossom-laden branches. Take a close look at the bowl-shaped blossoms that grow in bunches resembling white and pink exploding fireworks.

The sanctuary road, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, runs for about a mile and is bordered by laurels that extend deep into the surrounding forest. The laurels in the area flourished after inmates from Somers prison were paid 25 cents a day in the 1950s to clear grape vines and trees to showcase the bushes.

There are also a number of picnic tables placed along the road where visitors can enjoy lunch under the blossoms, which are expected to peak this weekend and early next week. There are several unmarked trails that will allow visitors to walk through the ferns and under the blooms for a view of the gnarled and twisted trunks.

In a May 1921 article in The Courant, an association made an appeal to state residents not to take mountain laurel branches with blossoms on them. "Every person in the state should know more about this beautiful shrub and should take a share in its protection when occasion offers."

Good advice as one ventures through a sanctuary for the state flower.

To reach the mountain laurel sanctuary, take I-84 east to exit 72. Go left at the end of the exit and cross over the highway. Go left on Route 190. After about 100 yards, look for the sign.

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