The wooded trail was still mostly ice-packed on March 12, although some brown bare spots were starting to appear. Always with an eye to the edge of the trail, I was walking along when something yellowish-green captured my attention.
I peered through some balsam fir boughs, and there on the forest floor were about a dozen or more leaves amid rusty pine needles and withered red maple leaves. They were broadly oval in shape and were 2-3 inches long. The base of the leaves, where the leaf blade attached to the stem, were heart shaped (although sometimes they can be round).
Like the crocuses and tulips that come up spring after spring in your yard, so does this wildflower, the trailing arbutus.
It is a perennial that lives for multiple years. The leaves seen in March are last year’s leaves. The plant is considered an evergreen plant, since the leaves remain green throughout the winter and into the following spring. On March 12, a few of the leaves on the trailing arbutus I found had rusty patches, which is not unusual in late winter or very early spring. The new leaves unfold in June, and in their turn will be next winter’s evergreen leaves.
I reached down and rubbed a leaf between my thumb and forefinger; it felt stiff and leathery. The leathery surface helps prevent dehydration. The upper leaf surface was smooth, shiny and hairless, but the underside was hairy. The leaf edges were smooth with no serrations, but stiff rusty hairs appeared along the leaf margin.
With the scientific name of Epigaea repens, trailing arbutus is part of the heath plant family, Epicaceae — along with blueberries, creeping snowberry, bog laurel and many others. The genus name, Epigaea, comes from the Greek phrase meaning “upon the earth.” And the species name, repens, relates to the plant’s creeping and rooting stems, which are woody and covered with bristly, rusty hairs.
Also known as mayflower or Plymouth mayflower, trailing arbutuses are low to the ground and slow growing. They are easy to miss because of their petite size, often three inches or less in height.
Just like some people prefer being in Maine year round, while others like warmer places, plants also have habitat preferences. The trailing arbutus plant that I found on March 12 was partially hidden beneath low hanging boughs of balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and growing amid the fallen needles of the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Trailing arbutus often grows under conifers, especially pines. Why have they evolved to prefer this environment? My best thought is that broadleaf trees drop their leaves in the fall, and if the trailing arbutus were to be smothered by those fallen leaves, then it wouldn’t have access to the sunlight it needs to photosynthesize and feed itself. It would die.
Trailing arbutus can grow in partial shade or full shade and favors rich, moist, well-drained upland soil. It also tends to prefer acidic soils. This explains why it hangs around with pines, as pines also like acidic soil.
It was too early for the flowers to unfurl on March 12, but the buds were hidden and protected under the leaves, where they had formed during the previous fall. From around mid-April to late May, you can find a tiny cluster of pinkish or white flowers emerging from the ends of the branches. Sometimes you need to lift a leaf to find them. The flowers are about half an inch long, waxy in appearance and aromatic.
As is characteristic of plants in the heath family, the flower has five petals and ten stamen. The petals are fused at the base taking the shape of a funnel or miniature bell. If the flowers are pollinated, fleshy white berries form in late summer. Each is about one quarter of an inch in diameter, roundish and has five cells within that contain many dark brown seeds. These diminutive plants — buds, leaves,and seeds — are a food source for voles as well as spruce and ruffed grouse.
Trailing arbutus occurs in all the New England states. Since 1901, it has been the provincial flower of Nova Scotia, and since 1918, it has been the state flower of Massachusetts.
Trailing arbutus is a fascinating plant that I enjoy watching as the seasons progress. They may be small, but they are worth checking out.
Grace Bartlett lives in Bangor and is a Maine Master Naturalist who volunteers for Bangor Land Trust, Orono Bog Boardwalk and Hirundo Wildlife Refuge.