America's pipe wood
Famed for its blossoms, mountain laurel once spawned an industry with its root burls.

Along America's eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida and inland into the Appalachians, grows a splendidly blooming small tree called the mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia. In spring, it's large, umbrella-shaped blossoms put those of the redbud and even the beautiful dogwood to shame.

Yet, to the local people that know it well, the mountain laurel has earned far-from-flattering names. They call it poison laurel, sheep laurel, and ivywood. That's because honey made from the mountain laurel's nectar has a nauseating smell, sharp taste, and indeed can make one ill with cramps and vomiting. For that reason, it has long been a practice of beekeepers to throw out the honey that comes from mountain laurel's blossoms and await sweeter stuff. Even the tree's leaves have a poisonous effect, often causing paralysis in animals that eat them, especially foolhardy spring lambs.

And because the mountin laurel never gets really large—perhaps 30' tall in favorable red-clay soil—its wood has never attained commercial importance, except in one small way. It seems that up until the 1960s, when man-made materials became widely used, the mountin laurel furnished root burls that could be substituted for expensive imported briar in the making of smoking-pipe bowls. The wood of these burls was far heavier, harder, and denser than that in the tree above ground, making it slow to burn from smouldering tobacco. Although laurel briar was said to be inferior to the imported variety, the production of pipes from it fostered a sizeable industry in the mountain communities of western North Carolina.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson