April 21, 2014

MAYFLOWERS, AND THE TRAILING ARBUTUS CLAUSE

Known as Trailing Arbutus to Yankee New Englanders, or as Mayflower, Epigaea repens is a lovely native American wildflower that signals the end of winter, as it is the first woodland wildflower to bloom, often in late March. The pink form is more unusual, as most wild colonies are white blooming.


My family has a long history with the plant known as the Mayflower, Epigaea repens,  not that my ancestors came over on the Mayflower, or anything close to that ( although, I do know some families here who can claim that), so I should rephrase that claim - for the past century, the Mayflower has been part of my families life. This sweet, fragrant low-growing denizen of the highly acidic, pine and oak woodland found here in eastern Massachusetts  was a favorite of the early colonists from England, as they quickly learned that once the Mayflower bloomed, the harsh winter was nearly over.

Victorian nature enthiusiasts, those who collected wild songbird eggs and who pressed flowers also cherished the rare bouquet in early spring, but then again who could blame them - it's hard to not notice a glimpse of pink or white in the grey and brown, drab woodland. If the Mayflower waited to share its blossoms only a few weeks later, few would even notice it at all against the visual noise presented by the showier wildflowers like wood anemones, trillium and bloodroot.

The tradition of picking small bouquets of Mayflowers ended in the early part of the 20th Century, and not a moment too soon, as apparently the plant nearly became extinct due to over-picking by collectors. It was during this time that my father, who was then employed as a nature column illustrator in the 1930's, often featured Mayflowers in his many illustrations.

I could make the argument that today, few know of this plant, yet many people are familiar with its name, thanks to the sailing ship and the Pilgrims.  This is  a plant which can hide well, camouflaged and hidden below last autumns oak leaves and pine needles, many hikers just step right over it never appreciating its blossoms. Only the bravest who dare squat with nose to ground, challenge the bumblebees who desperately visit each flower this time of year.

With evergreen leaves as rough as sandpaper, Epigaea repens remains an iconic woodland ground creeper in acidic woodland forests in southern New England, found often where White Pine and Red Oak grow.

Five years ago, I was presented a flat of pink epigaea, a special gift from a special house guest who happened to be closing her rare plant nursery in Quebec. She had been traveling throughout New England, and had decided to 'gift us' one entire tray of these precious plants. Maybe she could tell that we would be good Mayflower parents, or maybe she could just tell that our soil was perfect. Regardless, we ended up with one flat of not the white form, but the rarer, and quite select deep pink flowered form of Epigaea repens. I, of course, was delighted, as this was one plant which I had only heard rumors of, but have never seen.


One of my fathers newspaper illustrations from the 1930's showing Mayflowers. You can see more here.


Wild populations usually have a few pink tinted forms, usually a white selection which turns pale pink with age, but this form is pink from the get go, and a bright, cheerful pink on a robust plant. Luckily, our colony has thrived, and has spread, growing along my entrance walk, where it enjoys deep pine needles mulch from a giant White Pine, a luxury as finding the perfect site for this plant can be challenging in most gardens.




On Easter Sunday, I was able to pick a small bouquet of Mayflowers - legally picked on our property, even though the large bumble bees complained a little, I brought a few branchlets into the house to show my father, whose eyesight is practically gone now, at 100 years old. Even with his onset dementia which is really making daily life for all of us difficult - I told him that I had an Easter surprise for him, and from behind my back I presented him the bouquet.

Grasping the tiny, rough- leaved fragrant branches in his gnarled, hands, he somehow knew instantly.
"'Mayflowers" he yelled. Waving them in the air, the best he could given that he is moving towards the big old 101.
And then, surprising us all, as he can barely see anything,  he lifted the bouquet and sniffed them. And even though I know his sense of smell has long left him, , somehow he could imagine their scent, maybe, even smell them, or so we would like to think.

( yeah - totally worth losing a few plants in the yard for this!) and this WWII veteran became a little emotional. Not crying, by any measurement, but he became quiet, and tucked the arbutus into his bedding to keep for later.

Look - sometimes rules should be broken, even if it means that a few Bumble bees will have to suffer. And herein lies the clause - if one was born two years after the Titanic disaster, and in the same month that WW1 started, then one could pick all of the Mayflowers one could hold in one hand, between March 15 and April 25.   - The Trailing Arbutus Clause. Here here.

13 comments :

  1. I had an Aunt Arbutus. We called her Aunt Boots. I remember hearing that an Arbutus was a flower but that was before the advent of the internet. I quickly forgot to do the research.
    Thank you for posting this. It reminded me of a lovely woman whose name made us giggle (because we did not know how lovely the flower was).

    xo

    Andie

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    1. What a great old fashioned name - Arbutus, I wonder if she was named after the shrub in California? There are a few other genus called Arbutus as a common name, I believe.

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  2. I LOVE this flower. I got nostalgic just reading your post. My parents used to get compost for our vegetable garden from a friend of my dad's who had a horse farm a little ways out of town. Every year, back in the woods where he kept this manure pile, there would be thousands of these little flowers and I'd gather huge bunches to take home with us while my dad was loading the pickup bed with manure. I'd love to be able to grow them someday. Thanks for sharing! :)

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    1. Abby - I'm a little jealous that you could get horse manure - we used to get it by the truck load too, but no longer. It's hard to find a place that will deliver it, and I no longer have a pick up. I love your charming memory!

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  3. Thanks for sharing this. A lovely flower and a great story.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I am sure I have not seen the Mayflower in our woods nor in a garden, but the the sweet little flowers look just lovely and their scent must be heavenly. So nice your father immediately recognized them, I can fully imagine because I take care for my 94 years old father.

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    1. Oh Janneke, your father is so fortunate to have you there for him. I suppose that it is the least we can do, right? I only know of a few wild locations near our home where the Mayflowers grow, there are large populations in a State park near me, they have been there on the granite outcroping for as long as I can remember.

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  5. What a sweet time with your father on Easter. I really enjoyed this post.

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  6. Lovely post. I think I have greenhouse envy. And I like your thoughts on the tomato hoarders, I had a garden mentor who said 'been there, killed that' - it's how you learn.

    Caroline

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    1. Thanks Caroline. I must admit, I do love my greenhouse, but heating it is impossibly expensive. I'm not sure that I will be able to keep it up, but I think I can convert it soon to more of a winter garden.

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  7. thank you so much for this post! in one of my all time favorite books, Anne of Green Gables, mayflowers are mentioned more than a few times. i have always wondered about them.

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    1. You know, that is a book which I have been meaning to read ( along with Little Women), maybe because I like New England so much, especially in the 18th and 19th century. Thanks for reminding me!

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    2. I just wanted to post the same comment, in which Anne's children presented her with mayflowers each spring.
      I never new what they looked like. And I have never seen them in Europe.

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