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.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.