Trailing Arbutus

As the wild flower moon waxes and wanes the delicate, fragrant trumpet –like flowers of Trailing arbutus will have gone to seed because this flower only blooms for a brief moment in time before the trees leaf out. This exquisite ephemeral takes me back to childhood when my little brother and I gathered a few sprigs to put in mother’s day bouquets. Trout lilies, violets, hepatica, trillium, bloodroot, spring beauties were also common in our woods and bloomed during the month of May; only bloodroot preceded arbutus.

 Today I wouldn’t think about picking any of these flowers because most have become so scarce, but every year during the first week of May I walk down to my brook where arbutus cascades over moss covered stone and snakes along the spongy humus (provided by mixed deciduous, pine and hemlock detritus) to keep an eye on the budding arbutus. As soon as mine open I am off to forests that have not been logged in many years to find the glorious evergreen mats dotted with tiny flowers that seem to stretch out forever like they did when I was a child. In the deep woods the spicy sweet scented pearl or pale pink ‘mayflowers’ transport me to other realms. 

 When I first moved to the Bethel area I was thrilled to see trailing arbutus growing along the Gore Road. It was still country then and spying wild flowers was the best part of walking down my road. As the road became busier, it was widened and widened again, and these delicate wildflowers (trillium, lady slippers arbutus, columbine, Canada mayflower, marsh violets) began to disappear. It was at that point I began to dig up what remained of the wild plants. Because I am skilled in the ways of flora having been a student of nature since I was small child, I managed to successfully move every plant I dug to this oasis where these wildflowers thrive today. My land already supported some wildflower species including some very small patches of arbutus. It must be said that I do not normally try to “improve” the earth around here so nature makes most of the decisions (I believe it is my job to pay attention and follow her lead); she decided to let trailing arbutus spread.

 These days, I no longer walk down the road at all. Huge trucks belch out dirty black smoke as they scream by at impossible speeds; the only remaining green on the sides of the road is grass. The glorious spring wild flowers are a poignant memory.

Trailing arbutus creeps along the ground. Even the wide oval shaped leathery leaves are fragrant. The earth hugging stems are fuzzy. Later in the season (early fall), after the flowers bloom, a seed appears that looks something like a white raspberry. If you read the literature about trailing arbutus most sources say the plant does not like leaf litter. I have to disagree because the arbutus I grow are almost always nestled in leafy litter. Smothering is another matter; perhaps this is what the ‘experts’ mean.

This plant is a native perennial that stretches from Newfoundland to Florida. Epigaea repens is classified as subshrub and is a member of the heath family. The name “Epigaea” comes from a Greek phrase meaning “upon the earth, clearly a reference to the way the plant clings to earth. The word “repens” refers to the fact that the plant has creeping and rooting stems.

Arbutus needs shade from direct afternoon sunlight. In the wild the plant is commonly found in moist sandy soil, damp mossy banks, bogs, partially wooded clearings and under pine trees. Trailing arbutus prefers acidic soil.

Once relatively common, trailing arbutus is disappearing at an alarming rate primarilydue to logging. Other habitat loss is also a threat. The plant will not tolerate disturbance; foot traffic will kill it, permanently. Trailing arbutus is extremely vulnerable to periods of drought or flood. It is a slow growing plant under the best conditions. It may have even a more complex mycorrhizal relationship with certain fungi algae and bacteria than other woodland plants. Because the evergreen plant is cold hardy my guess is that our warming climate is already a  threat. I spent some time on the coast recently and noted that the arbutus I found was shriveled and brown, although the forest I was in was a healthy one.

Trailing arbutus is pollinated by wild bees and is a larval host for the inconspicuous Hoary Elfin butterfly (virtually every plant that I know of has some kind of intimate relationship with at least one insect – symbiosis).

Naturally, trailing arbutus was used by Indigenous peoples for medicinal purposes. Kidney ailments top the list for the Algonquin and Cherokee.

I encourage anyone with a light foot to explore forested lowlands beginning the first of May, when the broad evergreen leaves seem to light up and become more conspicuous. Around here the flowers emerge at the end of the first week in May. If an area has been recently logged, even partially, don’t bother to look because once some trees have been harvested and the ground has been disturbed/uprooted the plants will not return, unless logging occurred before the last 40 years or so when the use of smaller machines and men who cared about their land made logging more sustainable. The lilliputian trumpets are well worth getting on your knees to smell. The fragrance is unlike any other… but please don’t pick the flowers!

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