Here in the Pennsylvania highlands, June offers a unique opportunity for photographers. It is in the 6th month of the year, that
the two signature shrubs in Penn’s Woods, cast open thousands of pink and white flowers in displays that can literally encompass one’s entire field of view. I am alluding of course to the Pennsylvania state flower the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and its later blooming cousin, the rhododendron (Rhododendron groenlandicum).
Both shrubs occur throughout the state, and elsewhere in the eastern US (the rhododendron) occurs throughout much of the northern latitudes globally). Both species are evergreen, they add color to the brown/grey forest of November through April. Two months later, they are among the last of the spring blooms, before the forest settles in to the dark green monotony of summer.
I have members of both species in my yard at home. While the rhododendrons on some of my neighbor’s yards bloom in late May, mine conveniently are timed more to those that bloom in nearby wild-lands, in late June. So in early June, then my laurels are awash in flowers, I know it’s time to pack the car with photo gear, and head to the deep forest.
There are many places in the state where there are spectacular displays of Mountain Laurels, which in some sites will crowd out most of the competing underbrush. I have memories of hiking the magnificent West Rim Trail at the Pine Creek Gorge (Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon). We had a miserable 2 day slog through the rain, the magnificent scenery not entirely making up for the challenging terrain, and miserable weather. Cold and tired, we were approaching the trail’s end at Ansonia, when the skies began to clear.
Emerging from deep forest, the trail began to skirt the rim of the canyon which was carpeted in laurel blossoms under a canopy of tall hardwoods and conifers. Wispy clouds hugged the steep canyon slopes. I remember being slightly overwhelmed by the spectacular setting, and the vista beyond. In those days, I was more focused on hiking than photography but I did think to grab a shot or two, with my little Olympus film camera.
These days, my “go-to” place for laurels and “rhody’s” is nearby Hickory Run State Park. It is a magnificent place, bordering the Lehigh River gorge, with steep Appalachian terrain along the river to the west, and highlands to the east which are part of the glaciated terrain of the Pocono Plateau. It is the latter area in the park that I patrol when my yard laurels bloom.
Laurels at Boulder Field (Fujifilm S3 Pro, Tokina 12-12mm
During the 1700’s, travelers here beheld the deep virgin forest with dread, imagining the dangers they would face during their passage. They called these woodlands the “shades of death”.
The forest that I visit now are a mix of fairly mature northern hardwoods, with frequent white pine and hemlock stands. Here and there, one sees very large old conifers that one suspects were missed during the timbering that occurred in the mid to late 19th century. On a cloudy days, which I favor, these woods are quite dark. I usually bring a DSLR, with a tripod to cope with the slowish shutter speeds.
The laurels bloom tends to be prolific; flowers are everywhere in some spots. The later rhododendron event is much more localized and subtle but in its own way equally beautiful. Very occasionally, you will find the two plant blooming together, but in my experience each seem to occupy their own niche.
Standing in a Hemlock stand, surrounded by blooming rhododendrons, is at least for me the most archetypal experience one can have in the Pennsylvania outdoors. In such a place, one can imagine the fears of the earliest settlers who certainly imagined this wilderness filled with large carnivores, and hostile Indians (they were right).
Now it is just a place of great beauty and peace.
As usual these images and more can be viewed on my Smugmug site.