The Mountain Laurel is in Bloom Again


Sara E. Sill, Drawing of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), 1883. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of Newton C. Brainard

Certain flowers remind me of certain people. Trailing arbutus reminds me of my father, who knew where to find it growing in the woods around Manchester, where I grew up. Hybrid tea roses remind me of my mother, who grew them in her garden. Mountain laurel reminds me of a woman I never knew, who lived in Old Saybrook more than a century ago. On June 21, 1883, Sara E. Sill drew a picture of a sprig of mountain laurel. Sara was an amateur artist and an amateur botanist, but she drew her sprig of laurel with great precision and detail, giving it its Latin name, Kalmia latifolia. The mountain laurel was not yet Connecticut’s state flower—that wouldn’t happen until 1907—but it was admired for its showy blossoms and evergreen foliage, which was widely gathered and used in holiday decorations. It was one of over two hundred flowers that Sara depicted that year, mounting them in an album that today is in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society. Rather than arranging the flowers according to their scientific classification, or grouping them by color, as is most often done in modern guidebooks, Sara presented her drawings in chronological order, day by day, as the flowers came into bloom, so that her album shows that progress of the seasons, from early spring through autumn, starting out with pussy willow catkins and ending with holly berries. Mountain laurel was beloved of many artists, including the Connecticut Impressionists, who depicted it in numerous canvases of the ledges along the Connecticut River, but for me, the sight of the clusters of tiny pink umbrellas always evokes the memory of Sara Sill and her fascination with Connecticut wildflowers.