Beautiful mountain laurel

Mountain laurel in Gambrill State Park

Photos by Mike Kay

Mountain laurel is blooming throughout the county. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is an evergreen shrub that naturally occurs on dry upland sites where the soils have a low, acidic pH. It often grows in dense groves along the east slope of Catoctin Mountain or other dry sites.

The laurel has a single stem and more of a tree shape in the South, but in Maryland and northward it looks more like a shrub with multiple stems.

The sap is poisonous to many animals and is quite flammable; the plants can cause very dangerous flare-ups during forest fires. Many ornamental varieties of mountain laurel have been developed since it is a very deer-resistant plant.

However, this site-demanding plant needs drier, well-drained sites with acid soils to grow well. Also, you should not plant this shrub too close to your home since it is very flammable. The blooms should be on these trees for a few more weeks.

Poison hemlock

Photo in the public domain

Poison hemlock

An invasive plant found in Frederick County is poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Many of these plants are now in bloom along roadsides and streams. Dark green with leaves looking something like ragweed, it has clusters of white flowers and grows 5 to 8 feet tall.

Native to the Europe, West Asia and North Africa, its reputation is established in history for the hemlock tea that poisoned Socrates in ancient Greece, where hemlock tea was commonly used to put to death condemned prisoners.

The plant contains a toxic alkaloid called coniine, a neurotoxin that affects the central nervous system. The leaves and seeds are poisonous to humans and mammals, including livestock. It is a good idea to remove the plant from where it can be foraged by animals.

Snapping Turtle

Photo in the public domain

'Snappy' turtles

Snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentine) are found throughout the East and Midwest, westward to the Rocky Mountains and in southern Canada.

The "snapping" turtle gets its name from its aggressive nature when confronted on land. This turtle has a long, flexible neck, strong jaws and sharp claws that it will use to defend itself. Unlike most other turtles that can cover up in a shell, the snapper is too big, so it becomes aggressive if threatened.

In the safety of water, snapping turtles are much more docile and will most often swim away to avoid conflicts. Snapping turtles like slow-moving streams, ponds and shallow estuaries that have muddy bottoms and plenty of vegetation.

Snapping turtles eat both plants and animals, and they are instrumental in keeping water bodies clean by eating carrion and excess plant material. Snapping turtles can live up to 50 years and reach weights close to 80 pounds.

Nature Notes for 6/5/2011