HEATH FAMILY - Ericaceae: Trailing Arbutus; Mayflower; Ground Laurel
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.
Preferred Habitat--Light sandy loam in woods, especially under evergreen trees, or in mossy, rocky places.
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 snowdrifts, 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!"
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!