Trailing arbutus, or mayflower, is an early-blooming evergreen shrub that enchanted the Pilgrims after their first New England winter. Even today, a favorite tradition for many people at the end of winter is to search under fallen leaves for the sweet-smelling flowers and bright green leaves of this cheery groundcover. Also known as ground laurel, it forms a clumping, ground-hugging mat (epi means “upon” and gaea means “earth”) of leathery, wavy leaves and trumpet-shaped, white or pink flowers with an exquisite fragrance. The whitish, raspberry-like fruits split open in summer to reveal white pulp and seeds, most of which are dispersed by ants. Trailing arbutus prefers exposed sites and moist, acidic conditions, but doesn’t tolerate excessive wetness or drought. It’s a shade lover that thrives under conifers and deciduous trees. Its leaves tend to acquire a weathered look, and the plant may appear to be dying just before the new leaves emerge. Its range includes eastern North America, from Canada to Florida; however, the plant is rare in many states. In Ohio, it’s commonly found in the Shawnee State Forest, but it’s mostly scarce and locally extirpated in many locations for a number of reasons, including canopy closure, competition with overstory plants, a slow-growing habit, difficulty in becoming established, grazing, and over-collection by people for use in making wreaths.
Mycorrhizal association (the symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a plant) is important for the establishment and well-being of trailing arbutus, and the shrub dislikes being transplanted or disturbed. At least two shrubs, male and female, should be planted for pollination to occur. Space them 6 to 10 inches apart and apply a light dressing of mulch to keep the roots cool and moist.
Native habitats include acidic soils in sandy, dry, mossy, or rocky woods; in bogs; along trails and roadsides in wooded areas; and on steep, sparsely vegetated slopes.
Grows 1-6” tall.
Prefers part or full shade.
Prefers moist, well-drained soils, including sandy, loamy, and rocky.
Flowers are around 1” across, blooming mid-March to late April. They may turn pinker as they age. The five petals are mostly fused, forming a corolla with a hairy interior. Round, fleshy fruits split in June to reveal brown seeds in white pulp.
Alternate, oblong-shaped, stiff leaves are 1-1 ½” long and covered with a network of veins. They often turn red in winter and have slightly hairy margins; round to heart-shaped bases; and pointed tips.
The woody stems are 6-16” long and are coated in rust-colored hairs. They put out roots at the joints.
Trailing arbutus is a host plant for the larvae of the hoary elfin butterfly and red-striped fireworm moth. Bumblebees are important pollinators. Chipmunks and small game eat the fruits, birds eat the seeds, and deer browse the plant.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the plant to treat kidney disorders, chest ailments, indigestion, rheumatism, and abdominal pain.
The blossoms are sometimes eaten fresh on the trail or in salads.
Warning: Trailing arbutus shouldn’t be eaten in large quantities because it contains arbutin, which metabolizes to hydroxyquinone.
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