Trailing Arbutus

– Posted in: Native/Invasive

trailing arbutus Epigaea repens

I recently discovered trailing arbutus growing on our property

I‘ve been trying to go for a walk up in our woods every day that it isn’t raining. (We got 8.55 inches of rain this April and our normal is 3.49 inches, so there haven’t been as many opportunities as in past springs.) During this time of year, when the native spring ephemerals are blooming, something new can be seen just about every day, and something else is gone for the year, if you don’t make it up there.

Found After Twenty Years

I follow the same route each time I go up, covering as many side trails as I can, instead of taking the most direct path straight up the hill. I love to go “exploring” when I know I won’t get lost, and you never know what you will find in the old familiar haunts. This past Thursday I discovered trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), also known as Mayflower, growing on a side trail that I call the Witch Hazel Walk. How can it be, I ask myself, that I have lived here over twenty years and have never seen this plant?

William Cullina, author of The New England Wild Flower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, states in his article Propagating and Transplanting Trailing Arbutus or Mayflower, “a patch 2 feet in diameter is at least a decade old.” The patch I found might have been two feet in length, but perhaps a foot wide, so this patch, small as it is, probably hasn’t been growing for as long as we’ve lived here. Also, the leaves are not that different from those of winterberry and partridge berry, both of which we have in abundance, so if I saw trailing arbutus when it was not in bloom, I might have mistaken it for one of the other two native plants.

trailing arbutus patch

A patch of trailing arbutus is rather unassuming.

According to Cullina, we have the perfect conditions for it: soil pH below 5.0, a slope of at least 8%, woodland soils. But since at one time our whole hillside was cleared of trees and used as pasture, it is possible that there was not a sufficient layer of partially decomposed organic debris, which Cullina says trailing arbutus requires, twenty years ago. I am encouraged by the presence of this native plant to think that our second growth forest is finally gaining a level of maturity sufficient to support more native ephemerals.

How Did It Get Here?

How did the patch get started? It is possible seeds lay dormant for the many years the site was pasture, and then grew back into forest. The fruit of trailing arbutus is food for mice and other animals, and it is more likely that seed was brought here in that manner. However, according to the New York Floral Atlas, a qualified herbarium specimen hasn’t been submitted for my county. Officially, at least, it doesn’t exist here. I could find no mention of birds eating the fruits, but if they do, that would be the most reasonable explanation for how a patch got started here.

Trailing Arbutus Is All About Fragrance

What’s the big deal about trailing arbutus, anyway? The flowers are not that showy and the whole plant is rather easy to ignore, but those flowers have a marvelous fragrance, similar to jasmine. Cullina says the scent “hangs heavily in the air,” but I had to lie on my stomach and put my nose to the flower to catch the scent, and so did Fiona Dudley of Asheville Naturals, so I know it’s not just me. Perhaps you need to have a bigger patch, or perhaps the temperature must be warmer. For me, I got all the thrill I needed just finding it there.

The Trailing Arbutus

John Greenleaf Whittier
I wandered lonely where the pine-trees made
Against the bitter East their barricade,
And, guided by its sweet
Perfume, I found, within a narrow dell,
The trailing spring flower tinted like a shell
Amid dry leaves and mosses at my feet.

From under dead boughs, for whose loss the pines
Moaned ceaseless overhead, the blossoming vines
Lifted their glad surprise,
While yet the bluebird smoothed in leafless trees
His feathers ruffled by the chill sea-breeze,
And snow-drifts lingered under April skies.

As, pausing, o’er the lonely flower I bent,
I thought of lives thus lowly, clogged and pent,
Which yet find room,
Through care and cumber, coldness and decay,
To lend a sweetness to the ungenial day
And make the sad earth happier for their bloom.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

bobobill August 5, 2013, 10:32 am

I ordered 6 bare root trailing Arbutus to be delivered end of Sept. Want to plant at camp in U.P. Michigan. Have wooded area steep slope. sunny/shade around edges. Sandy soil. Where should I plant? Scared they will die.

Brenda Visser May 20, 2011, 12:59 pm

Hi Kathy,

I recently wrote a post on my blog about trailing arbutus and I thought I would share it with you:

Do you ever accept guest blog posts? I would be interested…

michele May 4, 2011, 8:45 pm

Thanks for the information. Just learning about plants. The grass in the picture looks extremely green..must be all the rain you had.

Kathy Purdy May 4, 2011, 10:53 pm

It’s moss, not grass. That is one tiny flower we’re talking about.

Gloria May 4, 2011, 12:03 pm

Nice find. It will be interesting to now watch the patch throughout the seasons. Did you notice any insects?

joene May 3, 2011, 8:49 am

You’ve inspired me to start looking for trailing arbutus in the old growth forest surrounding my property. What a thrill to find something ‘new’ in old, familiar haunts.

Becky May 2, 2011, 4:25 pm

I see your plant is growing near moss. Is it also near any evergreen roots? Apparently interesting soil microbes are necessary for this plant to do well. If we get a sunny day that’s when you can walk by the plant and catch the fragrance on the breeze. The sunny day is the tricky part!

Kathy Purdy May 2, 2011, 5:08 pm

It isn’t near an evergreen, but there is a wild blueberry bush quite close by. Yes, if you read the article by William Cullina that I linked to, you will see it is dependent on mychorrizae to thrive.

Gail May 2, 2011, 2:18 pm

Fantastic find. I love how delightful it looks in the moss. I’ve only seen this pretty in books~But, I have seen native ephemerals return to my property when I let the lawn go and the leaves fall~Like magic they returned! Corms and seeds were just waiting for the right conditions. gail

Alistair May 2, 2011, 12:49 pm

Not a plant that I am familiar with Kathy, but I am pleased to have shared your enthusiasm.

Layanee May 2, 2011, 11:19 am

It is a delight to find something new on a path well traveled. I am going on a woodland walk although they are probably past flowering here. Nice picture also. It looks pristine.

commonweeder May 2, 2011, 11:10 am

What a joy! I have a friend who had trailing arbutus in her woodland, but I have never seen this plant, only known of it and its fragrance. How lucky you are.