The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 14, 2004


Trailing arbutus

Name: Epigaea repens or trailing arbutus; aka mayflower, shadflower, gravel plant, ground laurel, mountain pink, and winter pink. There are two stories about why this plant is known as the "mayflower." One is that it blooms in May (never mind March and April); the other is that it was named for the ship "Mayflower" by the pilgrims (never mind that the ship was named after the hawthorn — which is the "mayflower" in England). The name of gravel plant comes from its use as a remedy for gravel (kidney stones).

History: The trailing arbutus was adopted as the Massachusetts state flower on May 1, 1918. It was proposed for this status at least as early as 1893 and two bills were introduced and defeated. In 1918 Representative Myles A. O'Brien, Jr. introduced the third mayflower bill. At this time additional bills designating other flowers were also put forward. It may have been too difficult a decision for the state legislature which delegated the task to the Department of Agriculture. In the true spirit of delegation, the Department of Agriculture passed it to the State Board of Education which passed it to the children in the form of a vote. Massachusetts school children selected the mayflower by more than a 2:1 margin over the water lily.

When and where seen: The clump of trailing arbutus in the photo is on private property in Carlisle. It is growing on a bank under some wild mountain laurels. On Patriots Day the buds were just starting to show white at their tips. On April 25, it was in full bloom.

Identification: The trailing arbutus has oval, leathery, veiny leaves which are very low to the ground, and in April and May are likely to be showing winter burn. The leaves are small, less than three inches long and about half as wide. The tiny five-petaled flowers are white or pink, they form in clusters and are very fragrant, although you do have to get into a truffle-hound position to smell them. The stalks and the sepals are covered with fine brown hairs.

Propagation: The seeds are dispersed by ants which like to eat the sticky pulp that coats the seeds. The plant is extremely difficult to cultivate and almost impossible to transplant due to a dependency on a mycorrhizal fungus (a soil-dwelling fungus that forms a close partnership with the roots of the plant).

Protection: Trailing arbutus was listed as endangered in Massachusetts in 1925 and is protected by law. It is now becoming common in some central and western parts of the state but is still rare in eastern Massachusetts.

References: Carol H. Woodward and H. W. Rickett, New York Botanical Garden's Field Guide to Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States; John Gibbons, "Mass Audubon Journal;" ( for the history).

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito