Friday, May 2, 2014

Trailing Arbutus, a Shy Shrub

Years ago when I was first getting interested in our native plants, I was lucky enough to find some antique books about them, one of which was Mrs. William Starr Dana's 'To Know the Wildflowers'. Her sometimes exaggerated prose made me smile a bit, but on the whole I found she had much to teach me.

One of the plants she discusses is the Trailing Arbutus, or Epigea repens, whose "waxy blossoms and delicious breath are among the earliest prophecies of perfume-laden summer".

I'll spare you the two pages of poetry excerpts that follow.

The point I want to make, though, is that these older books, and the newer field guides as well, led me astray about this plant. From the enthusiastic descriptions and the pretty line drawings, I got the impression of a substantial plant. Since the later books also called it a 'shrub', I thought it was probably like a large blueberry bush..... and I looked for something that size. Needless to say, I never found it.

Only when we moved to Constance Bay did I finally meet Trailing Arbutus. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a prostrate or trailing shrub, with its branches running along the ground and the leaves held horizontally just above the duff layer. Of course, as soon as I saw it, the images in the books clicked into place - all that was needed was a size adjustment!

And, in fact, Trailing Arbutus is everything Mrs. Dana said. Fragrant, fresh, sturdy but delicate, ephemeral, a bit mysterious, totally beguiling. She makes much of it being known as the Mayflower, and being a symbol of the hope felt by the early settlers after the hardships of their first winters n the New World.

I have it now, here at Pine Ridge, from cuttings taken from plants from Constance Bay. In fact, the only other place I have seen it is in Algonquin Part, growing in a very unexpected habitat on top of some dry and exposed rocks. As I mention in the 'Know and Grow' page, Trailing Arbutus is not that easy to propagate. Seeds are very hard to get, and cuttings may or may not root. In three years of trying, I had good rooting only once. That time, I left the cuttings outside over winter as instructed (in another classic, Lincoln and Timmie Foster's 'Pleasures and Perils of the Rock Garden'), covering the flat with a clear plastic lid to protect it. What I didn't think of was that the snow would weigh it down..... the lid collapsed, the plants were squashed flat.... luckily they must have been an obstinate crew because most of them survived, and most of them are now growing in my woods. I put them under tall White Pines, on the north or eastern sides of the kinds of small mounds these woods seem to have, and they are doing well. One funny thing, they have all grown downwards. For some reason, I seem to plant things part way up slopes, expecting them to grow both upwards and downwards, and they never do.

Look for Trailing Arbutus to be in bloom now. The cool slow spring has set them back slightly, but the plants here at Pine Ridge are ready to open their buds.

We'll let Mrs. Dana have the last words: "... these brave little blossoms, struggling through the withered leaves, brought a message of hope and courage to the heroic heart of the Quaker poet...(Whittier) who called them 'The first sweet smiles of May'. Quite.

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