Epigaa, from epi, upon, and ge, the earth, in allusion to the habit of trailing growth.
A prostrate, slightly woody, branching shrub with alternate evergreen leaves; growing in sandy loam, mossy, rocky soil, on mountainsides, especially in the shade of pine-trees. Newfoundland to the Northwest Territory, southward to Florida, Kentucky, and Michigan. Frequent on the sides of ravines in northern Ohio. April, May.
Woody, prostrate and trailing, bristly with rusty hairs; the trailing branches rooting at the nodes.
Evergreen, often weather-worn, on short rusty, hairy petioles; alternate, oval, rounded at base and apex, smooth above, more or less hairy below.
Fragrant, pink fading to white, about half an inch across, in clusters of few or many from the axils of the leaves.
Five dry, overlapping sepals.
Salver-form, tube hairy inside, spreading into five equal lobes.
Ten, with slender filaments; anthers attached to filaments below the middle.
One; ovary five-celled, with erect style and a five-lobed stigma.
Globose, slightly five-lobed.
Pollinated by bumblebees. Nectar-bearing.
This is the famous Mayflower of New England, whose delicate beauty and delightful fragrance have given it a place not only in our literature but in our hearts. Its distribution is so extensive and a personal characteristic of forming its buds in the autumn so general that there have arisen heated controversies as to the time of bloom. In the mountains of Virginia it blooms in March and April, in northern Ohio in April and May, and probably in New England its best full bloom is in May, though, undoubtedly, it sometimes blooms in April. As a matter of fact, its buds lie hidden beneath the dry leaves and protecting snow all winter long, awaiting the summons of the sun.
Trailing Arbutus. Epigaa repens
All in all, it is a most interesting plant and has been recognized for two centuries as one of the sweetest of spring's messengers, pushing its blossoms through and among the dry brown leaves and almost beside the lingering snow. The light-brown stems are woody and tough, keeping close to the ground. The dull old leaves that have endured the stress of winter storms are rusty and spotted, but it is they that do duty as foliage while the flowers are blooming; the new leaves develop later.
The name Mayflower for the hawthorn, familiar in England, as its application to the historic vessel shows, was applied by the Pilgrims to this plant, whose green leaves and pink buds bore an early message of hope and courage to the far-away wanderers.
"Yet, 'God be praised,' the Pilgrim said, Who saw the blossoms peer Above the brown leaves, dry and dead, 'Behold our Mayflower here!
" 'God wills it, here our rest shall be, Our years of wandering o'er; For us the Mayflower of the sea Shall spread her sails no more.'
"O sacred flowers of faith and hope, As sweetly now as then Ye bloom on many a birchen slope In many a pine-dark glen."
The Mayflower is a plant still in the state of transition. We find blossoms having both stamens and pistils, others having only stamens, still others having only pistils. These flowers are sometimes all on the same plant; sometimes all the flowers of one plant are staminate, all of another are pistillate. Moreover, the stamens and pistils vary among themselves, sometimes short pistils go with long stamens, sometimes long pistils with short stamens. What the flower will be is a case of anybody's guess.
The cultivation of the Mayflower has often been tried but has rarely been successful. Indeed, there is a wide-spread belief that it is impossible. Doubtless it is difficult, but it is not impossible.
A recent number of The Garden Magazine, in its directions to gardeners, says: "Bear in mind that the Trailing Arbutus must always be lifted with its root system absolutely undisturbed. Herein lies the secret of its obstinacy. Take it up after a soaking rain with mud, stones, moss, or whatever surrounds it and carefully as possible shift it to a sheltered place and cover it from sun and wind for an entire season. An excellent plan is to lightly fit the sod into a paper pot or a strawberry-box, so that its removal may not even jar the soil about the roots. Colonies of Arbutus creep out into the open and these are most desirable for removal as they have become hardened by wind and weather."
These suggestions make it apparent that growing Arbutus is no light task. Seedlings are rare, new plants come from rooting branches that sprawl upon the ground. Probably the real difficulty lies in the fact that ordinary garden soil is not suited to it; it requires an acid soil and is intolerant of lime.