The calico bush is native to eastern parts of North America, where it grows in forest and among rocks in semi-shade under the tree canopy, forming widespread dense thickets. It is a large evergreen shrub which at its best can grow into a small tree several metres high. In summer the branches are covered in white to pinkish clusters of flowers, which are a rather unusual shape.
In Finland this beautiful shrub is unfortunately winter tender and very seldom flowers, as the branch tips freeze if exposed above snow cover. Plants seed-grown from the best natural provenances might be hardier than nursery-produced plants. The species thrives best in semi-shade in spots similar to those favoured by rhododendrons.
Carl von Linné named the genus Kalmia after Pehr (or Pietari) Kalm, his Finnish student, who made an expedition to North America from 1747-1751. From this expedition, he brought back to his teacher specimens including the calico bush and sheep laurel (K. angustifolia). In 2011, the “Pehr Kalm and European Explorers commemorative coin” was minted, showing Kalmia latifolia on the obverse side.