A Return to Newfoundland

by Hamish Robertson – January 2001


I have always enjoyed Norman Todd’s erudite and whimsical monthly epistles and the last one on the “Botanical Mr. Banks” has stimulated me to contribute as well.  My story concerns  the  introduction by Sir Joseph Banks of another ericaceous companion plant from Newfoundland, a plant  which I encountered and photographed during a camping trip there some thirty years ago.


Bean (1915) describes Kalmia polyfolia, the bog laurel, as an evergreen shrub about 1-2 feet high, with narrow leaves. This bears out Dr. Thornton in his Temple of Flora published in 1808 in which there is a plate entitled ‘The Narrow Leafed Kalmia’.  I have this plate which appears in a romanticized Newfoundland setting with sullen mountains as a backdrop.  It shows the Kalmia with its wonderfully pale, purplish-rose flowers slightly faded with age.  Here, the plant has been painted from a living specimen  as distinct from Erhert’s botanical illustration reproduced in Averil Lysacht’s (1971) scholarly tome on Bank’s Travels in Newfoundland and Labradore, 1766.  That example was  obviously painted from a pressed herbarium specimen.  Banks gets the credit for introducing it to England in 1767.  William Curtis, in the 5th volume of his Botanical Magazine published in 1792 has a fairly accurate plate of this plant, and also one of  Kalmia latifolia (not found in Newfoundland)..


Kalmia polyfolia is by no means a rare plant; it is a native of both eastern and western North America.  Lewis Clark (1973) states that it is widely distributed throughout British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon.  I have found it growing on the north facing slope of a moist ditch beside Highway 7, between Ottawa and Toronto.  Naturally a plant of bogs and other wet places, it likes a cool moist soil.


The Kalmias honour the name of Peter Kalm, a pupil of Linnaeus, who collected in northeastern USA and Quebec during 1748 – 51.  And although he may be credited with the reintroduction of the Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia, the original introduction was likely from seed sent by Peter Collinson in 1734 according to Curtis.  There is no indication from his diary that he encountered the narrow leaved Kalmia polyfolia in his travels.