|Trailing Arbutus in its typical habitat, creeping down a wooded hillside.|
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Trailing Arbutus - Plymouth's Mayflower
Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is a very uncommon plant of shady hillsides. It is an evergreen, and so requires a place where it will not be smothered by leaves. This usually means a slope along a wooded section where the leaves don't stay, but this also means it is very subject to erosion. It doesn't take much for it to get washed away or trampled. The male and female flowers are also normally on separate plants, so it doesn't set fruit very reliably, the plants sometimes being spread a bit far from each other for the pollinators to find the different ones. Add to the fact that it requires a specific symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi to also be present, and you can see why this plant is getting rare and rarer.
This plant goes by various names. The Genus Epigaea means " on the Earth." The scientific epithet repens means "creeping." So what you have is the very descriptive name of the plant who "creeps on the Earth." That is indeed what this little woody plant does, forming small mats that rarely are taller than 6 inches and forming little ground covers over a very long period of time. Ground Laurel, as it is sometimes called, is an extremely slow grower.
Trailing Arbutus is also referred to as Plymouth Mayflower, or sometimes just Mayflower. Since it is one of the first plants to bloom, well before May, the name is actually derived from a legend. It is said that the first bloom the pilgrims trying to settle in Plymouth in 1621 saw was this plant, whom they named after their ship. This member of the Heath family (Ericaceae) is also sometimes called Winter Pink, Mountain Pink, Gravel Plant, or Shadflower (supposedly blooming in time with the influx of migrating shad fish).
Although this plant has leathery evergreen leaves, it is best known from its small clusters of 5-petaled white or pink flowers. These often bloom in March through April and are very fragrant. They hold good supplies of nectar, enough to lure bumblebee queens (their primary pollinators) into looking for them even if they are sometimes covered in leaves. If a bumblebee is able to find 2 flowers of different sexes and pollinate them, then a berry-like capsule is formed. The seeds they contain are very attractive to ants who act as the main seed dispersers (a process called myrmecochory, more about that here: http://capitalnaturalist.blogspot.com/2014/04/myrmecochory-ants-in-our-plants.html )
The flowers are said to be edible and quite tasty, but the plant is getting so rare, that to eat them is a shame, and an actual crime in some areas. I've never tried to taste one. But Trailing Arbutus has been used by people for more than just food in the past. The Algonquian Quebec tribes used a leaf infusion to treat kidney ailments. It turns out that the leaves do contain a substance called arbutin that has been used medicinally to treat kidney stones and urinary tract disorders.
The Cherokee also made use of the plant, to treat abdominal pain, induce vomiting, treat diarrhea, indigestion, in addition to kidneys. The Haudenosaunee (sometimes called the Iroquois) thought it could be used for labor pains, rheumatism, kidney issues, and indigestion. For the Potawatomi, it was a sacred tribal flower.
So there's a lot to this little woodland creeper, though it gets harder to find every year. Though sometimes sold commercially, please make sure that it is not collected from the wild. If its is disturbed, the symbiotic fungal relationship is usually broken and the plant soon dies. So please never remove it from the wild. If you are lucky enough to find it, enjoy its beauty and fragrance, it is well deserving of being the floral emblem of Nova Scotia and state flower of Massachusetts, and was the Virginia Native Plant Society 2001 Plant of the Year.