Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens L. var glabrifolia)
One of the common flowers of early spring is the Mayflower (Epigaea repens L. var. glabrifolia), or Trailing Arbutus, also called Epigee rampante in French. It belongs to the heath or heather family (Ericaceae). It grows in open woods, or pastures, and along hillsides, in acidic soil.
The Mayflower is part of what Roland and Smith (The Flora of Nova Scotia, The Nova Scotia Museum, 1969) called the ‘Canadian Element’, woodland plants native to Northeastern North America and including common plants of the coniferous woods: Maianthemum canadense Desf. (Wild Lily-of-the- Valley), Mitchella repens L. (Partridge-berry), Gaultheria procumbens L. (Wintergreen) and Trientalis borealis Raf. (Star-flower), among others. When I worked on my M. Sc. thesis project, years ago, these were in the community of plants I encountered in the woods I was studying, and they are still my favorite plants.
The name epigaea means ‘on the earth’, and perfectly describes the way the Mayflower grows. The specific name is from the Latin repens meaning ‘creeping’. The plant spreads across the ground, its oval, leathery leaves lying flat and overlapping. The leaves persist all winter and sometimes look a little weather-worn. The variety we have is glabrous on the lower leaf surface, meaning without hairs. The leaves grow on hairy, woody twigs.
The flowers grow in clusters tucked beneath the leaves. They are creamy white, and are in the form of a short tube ending in five flaring lobes. They bloom mid-April to mid-May. The flowers along our woods have just completed their blooming. For a nostalgic look at the tradition of picking Mayflowers in spring, have a look at http://ahundredyearsago.com/2012/04/28/gathering-arbutus/
A delight of spring is to manoeuvre close to the ground so you can smell the Epigaea flowers. The perfume is very sweet, gently stirring. The only edible part of the plant is the flower and it tastes as sweet and fragrant as it smells. It is a shame to eat such a delicate creature as a Mayflower, but once a year I allow myself the privilege, just one tiny bloom (always be absolutely certain of the identification before you eat any plant in the wild). The plant is protected in some areas since it rarely sets seed and is almost impossible to transplant.
The Mayflower is the floral emblem of Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
(Epigaea repens L.)
on the slope, new leaves
vines of Partridge-berry creep,
beneath the din, a melody
weeps Epigaea, evergreen
pressed to the hillside
leather armour, thickened leaves
waxy bloom resists
Warning: 1. never eat any plant if you are not absolutely certain of the identification; 2. never eat any plant if you have personal sensitivities, including allergies, to certain plants or their derivatives; 3. never eat any plant unless you have checked several sources to verify the edibility of the plant.
© Jane Tims 2012