The mayflower, or trailing arbutus, is probably the smallest shrub I have ever seen. It is a creeping shrub, hence its scientific moniker repens, and can spread to 3 feet at the most. The genus name Epigaea is from the Greek epi meaning 'on' and gaea, meaning 'earth', therefore a plant that hugs the earth. Its oval shaped leaves cover the soil and cushion its very fragrant pink blossoms. The species tiny half- inch blossoms fade to nearly white. It is a spring bloomer, from May to June, on the eastern side of North America where it grows. It is found from Newfoundland to Florida, west to Kentucky and the Northwest Territories.
Mayflower is in the Ericaceae family along with other heaths or heathers such as the blueberry, azalea, rhododendron, and ericas. As such it prefers moist, acidic soils and shade. It appears to be sensitive to environmental disturbances, and is considered difficult to establish and cultivate. Trailing arbutus is extremely susceptible to failure during drought or flood, and is slow-growing even in good conditions. A mycorrhizal association may be necessary for survival.
Trailing arbutus actually has a long history of cultivation as an ornamental plant. Like many other North American native plants it was 'discovered', dug up and sent overseas to be recorded together with its woodland counterparts. In this case it was introduced into Great Britain in 1736.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries mayflower was collected heavily. Most likely its heady fragrance and early bloom time brought out the desire to decorate schools, homes and civic buildings. The state of Massachusetts tried to protect the plant from collection by having it declared the state flower. There were many failed attempts but finally the act was passed in 1918.
The province of Nova Scotia selected the mayflower as its floral emblem in 1901. It was once found on the reverse side of the 1856 Victoria penny.
Trailing arbutus has a number of common names (Mountain Pink, Gravel Plant, Ground Laurel, Winter Pink), but the choice of Mayflower has a very tenuous link to the American Pilgrims of 1620. It has been said that upon making it safely to shore on the sea vessel The Mayflower, the newly arrived pilgrims named the first flower they saw after their first New England winter.
It can be grown well by seed and in fact has an interesting fruit, a berry with similarities to a little white strawberry studded with seeds that is quickly consumed by mice and other animals as soon as it emerges from its protective jacket in June (according to William Cullina).
|open capsule with fruit|
William Cullina says that the fine roots system of Epigaea are highly mychorrizal and grow only in the
the F and H horizons of forest soil. He has had much success in growing the seeds but notes that the roots will not fare well if planted in topsoil. Furthermore, Epigaea does not need fertilizer as it can disrupt the delicate balance between roots and nascent symbiotic fungi that are already present in the soil.
Trailing arbutus is a larval host and nectar source to the Elf and Hoary Elfin butterfly. The seeds are attractive to birds, mice and other insects.
Medicinally Epigaea repens has been used primarily for kidney and urinary disorders.The name Gravel Plant derives from its use in purging kidney stones. Trailing Arbutus was also used by several Native American tribes in the treatment of kidney disorders. The Cherokee Indians, however, used it to treat indigestion and diarrhea, especially in children and the Iroquois used it to treat joint pain.
|Nova Scotia is the small orange province on the right|