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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, we are not that far from Plymouth Rock - so, allow me to I rephrase that claim: for the past century, the blooming of the Mayflower has been part of my families life, annual trips to see the first wild plants in bloom for me began as a child in the 1960's when on cold, yet sunny March day's when the snow began to melt my dad would allow me to play 'hookie' (hey, it was the 60's!) and we would go looking for Mayflowers.

We'd pack a lunch (nothing fancy - just salami sandwiches on raisin bread - I know, Dad wasnt a foodie although, today, this might count) and we would trudge through the Southern New England woodlands looking for this fragrant, early flowering native plants. Dad would explain how folks used to pick these early flowers through the Victorian era in the late 1800's and and sell them at the Boston Flower Markets - tied into little bunches for fancy, Victorian ladies. Today, they are protected and this was all part of a movement that began in Massachusetts long ago as folks became more conscious about our native plants and their fragile environment.

Did I mention that this was the late 1960's? Today, there may still be some illegal picking but thankfully, we live in a different world where awareness about not only our native plants but of our fragile ecosystems is becoming even more scrutinized.

I know that for my dad, these hikes were also nostalgic, as brothers used to pick the flowers in the 1910's nad 1920's - just to bring home. They even had a few colonies growing on the big granite outcroppings behind our chicken coops that have been there since the late 1800's so maybe they felt that this was OK (it really wasn't, of course) but I imagine that in the 1920's - few non-horticulturally minded people worried about such things.

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. One can understand why colonists in early America wanted to bring wild plants indoors during the winter months. Today, there is no need for this as housplants are common, and there are many reasons why any native or wild plant must never be disturbed. That said, it's completely safe to kneel down and smell some fragrant Mayflowers if you find some - that's free and safe!

We ant blame the Victorian nature enthiusiasts, for they realyl didnt know better - it was culturally accepted then, even those who collected wild songbird eggs and who pressed flowers also cherished the rare bouquet in early spring. Imagine what it was like to notice a glimpse of pink or white in the late winter amongst all of the never-ending grey and brown, drab woodland? If the Mayflower waited to share its blossoms only a few weeks later, few would even notice them at all against the visual noise presented by the showier wildflowers like wood anemones, trillium and bloodroot, but like much of nature - they were specially designed to take advantage of what they can offer - rich, sweet fragrance at a time when virtually nothing else is in bloom. It's really all about survival in a very special, unique and elegant way.

The tradition of picking small bouquets of Mayflowers ended in the early part of the 20th Century, after movements from plant societies and garden clubs began to spread the word, 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 seedlings from a collection seeded in Quebec. We hosted a few speakers at the house on a NARGS tour and as a gift, they left a flat of a particularly pink selection.Maybe she could tell that we would be good Mayflower parents, or maybe she could just tell that our soil was perfect after walking to our door across a natural outcroping of granite and wild blueberry. 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. They have not only thrived here under some old white pines, but - dare I say - they now allow me to actually pick a precious stem or two if I wanted- but I wouldnt dare.


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 take my father, whose eyesight is practically gone now, at 100 years old out to the back walk and show him a rather spectacular event - an entire colony of Mayflowers blooming in full force - so fragrant that even he could smell them. With his advancing dementia, I really didn't know how he might react, but I think he was emotionally moved. I could see it in his eyes - you know, one's sense of smell is often the most remembered of senses.

Later that night I heard him telling my brother who came to visit that he went for a hike to see the 'trailing arbutis'. My brother didnt seem to believe him of course, thinking that this was just another old memory, but quietly knew that this was a very special gift - any why bother the moment trying to complicate the story with my brother who really doesn't know plants. Mission accomplished, and that was that.

I had picked one stem that had a load of blossoms on it for him the next day, and as he showed his nurse - he grasping the tiny, rough- leaved fragrant branch 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. It all reminded us why it was priceless to keep a parent living at home (in the same home where he was born, in fact) for so long. Sure there are days when one struggles, even regrets such a sacrifice but then there are days like this one. I am convinced that these are the days that will remain in our memory banks.

Look - sometimes rules should be broken ,and even though some environmentalists may freak at the idea that I picked a branch from my own garden-seed-raised mayflowers, I felt that in this one case - that it was OK. Thoughts?  Sure - if it means that a few Bumble bees will have to suffer. Yet, I may want to offer a clause - if one  raises their own nativeplants from seed , and if one was born before the Titanic disaster, then one may pick a single stem of Mayflowers (trainling arbutis or Epigea repens) if not wild. The Trailing Arbutus Clause. Here here.

14 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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  8. Thank you so much for your post! I love mayflowers, and picked the pale pink ones when I was a little girl, sometimes brushing some leftover snow away to get at the flowers. I love their scent, and the fact that they truly did herald the end of winter and onset of Spring. So glad you're growing some!

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