This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Pink, fading to nearly white, very fragrant, about 1/2 in. across when expanded, few or many in clusters at ends of branches. Calyx of 5 dry overlapping sepals; corolla salver-shaped, the slender, hairy tube spreading into 5 equal lobes; 10 stamens; 1 pistil with a column-like style and a 5-lobed stigma. Stem: Spreading over the ground (Epigaea - on the earth); woody, the leafy twigs covered with rusty hairs. Leaves: Alternate, oval, rounded at the base, smooth above, more or less hairy below, evergreen, weather-worn, on short, rusty, hairy petioles.
Flowering Season - March - May.
Distribution - Newfoundland to Florida, west to Kentucky, and the Northwest Territory.
Can words describe the fragrance of the very breath of spring - that delicious commingling of the perfume of arbutus, the odor of pines, and the snow-soaked soil just warming into life? Those who know the flower only as it is sold in the city streets, tied with wet, dirty string into tight bunches, withered and forlorn, can have little idea of the joy of finding the pink, pearly blossoms freshly opened among the withered leaves of oak and chestnut, moss, and pine needles in which they nestle close to the cold earth in the leafless, windy northern forest. Even in Florida, where broad patches carpet the woods in February, one misses something of the arbutus's accustomed charm simply because there are no slushy remnants of snow drifts, no reminders of winter hardships in the vicinity. There can be no glad surprise at finding dainty spring flowers in a land of perpetual summer. Little wonder that the Pilgrim Fathers, after the first awful winter on the "stern New England coast," loved this early messenger of hope and gladness above the frozen ground at Plymouth. In an introductory note to his poem "The Mayflowers," Whittier states that the name was familiar in England, as the application of it to the historic vessel shows; but it was applied by the English, and still is, to the hawthorn. Its use in New England in connection with the trailing arbutus dates from a very early day, some claiming that the first Pilgrims so used it in affectionate memory of the vessel and its English flower association.
"Sad Mayflower! watched by winter stars, And nursed by winter gales, With petals of the sleeted spars, And leaves of frozen sails!
"But warmer suns ere long shall bring To life the frozen sod, And through dead leaves of hope shall spring Afresh the flowers of God! "
Some have attempted to show that the Pilgrims did not find the flowers until the last month of spring, and that, therefore, they were named Mayflowers. Certainly the arbutus is not a typical May blossom even in New England. Bryant associates it with the hepatica, our earliest spring flower, in his poem,"The Twenty-seventh of March ":
"Within the woods Tufts of ground laurel, creeping underneath The leaves of the last summer, send their sweets Upon the chilly air, and by the oak, The squirrel cups, a graceful company Hide in their bells a soft aerial blue."
Trailing Arbutus Or Mayflower. (Epigaea repens).
There is little use trying to coax this shyest of sylvan flowers into our gardens where other members of its family, rhododendrons, laurels, and azaleas make themselves delightfully at home. It is wild as a hawk, an untamable creature that slowly pines to death when brought into contact with civilization. Greedy street venders, who ruthlessly tear up the plant by the yard, and others without even the excuse of eking out a paltry income by its sale, have already exterminated it within a wide radius of our Eastern cities. How curious that the majority of people show their appreciation of a flower's beauty only by selfishly, ignorantly picking every specimen they can find!
In many localities the arbutus sets no fruit, for it is still undergoing evolutionary changes looking toward the perfecting of an elaborate system to insure cross-fertilization. Already it has attained to perfume, nectar, and color to attract quantities of insects, chiefly flies and small female bees; but in some flowers the anthers produce no pollen for them to carry, while others are filled with grains, yet all the stigmas in the neighboring clusters may be defective. The styles and the filaments are of several different lengths, showing a tendency toward trimorphism, perhaps, like the wonderful purple loosestrife; but at present the flower pursues a most wasteful method of distributing pollen, and in different sections of the country acts so differently that its phases are impossible to describe except to the advanced student. They may, however, be best summarized in the words of Professor Asa Gray: " The flowers are of two kinds, each with two modifications; the two main kinds characterized by the nature and perfection of the stigma, along with more or less abortion of the stamens; their modifications by the length of the style."
When our English cousins speak of the arbutus, they have in mind a very different species from ours. Theirs is the late flowering strawberry-tree, an evergreen shrub with clustering white blossoms and beautiful rough, red berries. Indeed, the name arbutus is derived from the Celtic word Arboise, meaning rough fruit.