Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Trailing arbutus by Winthrop Packard

Treasures of Aromatic Literature-Trailing arbutus by Winthrop Packard

The trailing arbutus is peculiarly the flower of Plymouth. Not that it grows there alone, indeed within easy reach of the landing place of the Pilgrims it is not easy now to find it. Once, no doubt, it blossomed about the feet of the pioneers, sending up its fragrance to them as they trod sturdily along their first street and through their new found fields that first spring after their arrival. My, but their hearts must have been homesick for the English May they had left behind! and in memory of the pink and white of the hawthorn hedges they called this pink and white flower which peered from the oval-leaved vines trailed about their feet, mayflower. It surely must have grown on the slopes of Burial Hill, down toward Town Brook, but now one will look in vain for it there. I found my first blossom of the year by following the brook up to its headwaters in Billington Sea. The brook itself is greatly changed since Bradford's day. Its waters are now held back by dams where it winds through the sand hills and one mill after another sits by the side of the ponds thus formed. Yet the "sea" itself must be much the same in itself and its surroundings as it was in Billington's time. Nor do I wholly believe the legend which has it that Billington thought it was a sea in very truth. It is too obviously a pond to have deceived even this unsophisticated wanderer. It covers but little over three hundred acres including its islands and winding coves.

I think, rather, its name was given in good natured derision of Billington and his idea of the importance of his discovery, a form of quaint humor not unknown in the descendants to the Pilgrims of this day. Yet the waters of the little winding pond are as clear as those of the sea which breaks on the rocks of Manomet or the Gurnet, and the hilly shores, close set with deciduous growth, are almost as wild as they were then. The robins that greeted the dawn on Burial Hill sang here at midday, blackbirds chorused, and song sparrows sent forth their tinkling songs from the shrubby growths. Plymouth woods, here at least, are a monotony of oaks. Yet here and there in the low places a maple has become a burning bush of ruby flame, and along the bog edges the willows are in the full glory of their yellow plumes. The richest massed coloring one can see in the region today, though, is that of the cranberry bogs. Looking away from the sun the thick-set vines are a level floor of rich maroon, not a level color but a background showing the brush marks of a master painter's hand. Toward the sun this color lightens and silvers to tiny jewel points where the light glances from glossy leaf tips. The later spring growth will fleck the bogs with greens, but the maroon background will still be there.

The arbutus does not trail in all spots beneath the oaks, even in this secluded wilderness. Sometimes one thinks he sees broad stretches green with its rounded leaves only to find last year's checkerberries grinning coral red at him, instead of the soft pink tints and spicy odor of the Epigtea blooms. Sometimes the pyrola simulates it and cracks the gloss on its leaves with a wan wintergreen smile at the success of the deception. But after a little the eye learns to discriminate in winter greens and to know the outline of the arbutus leaf and its grouping from that of the others. Then success in the hunt should come rapidly. After all Epigaea and Gaultheria are vines closely allied, and it is no wonder that there is a family resemblance. The checkerberry's spicy flavor permeates leaves, stem and fruit. That of the arbutus seems more volatile and ethereal. It concentrates in the blossom and lifts from that to course the air invisibly an aromatic fragrance that the little winds of the woods sometimes carry far to those who love it, over hill and dale. Given a day of bright sun and slow moving soft air and one may easily hunt the Plymouth mayflower by scent. Even after the grouped leaves are surely sighted the flowers are still to be found. The winds of winter have strewn the ground deep with oak leaves and half buried the vines in them for safety from the cold. Out from among these the blossoms seem to peer shyly, like sweet little Pilgrim children, ready to draw back behind their mother's aprons if they do not like the appearance of the coming stranger. Perhaps they do withdraw at discretion, and this is very likely why some people who come from far to hunt find many mayflowers, while others get few or none.

Just as the Mayflower in which the Pilgrims sailed to Plymouth seems to have been but one of many English ships of that name, so the trailing arbutus is not the only flower to be called mayflower in New England. The mayflower of the English fields and hedgerows was preeminently the hawthorn, known often just as "the may." But there is a species of bitter cress in England with showy flowers, Cardamine pratensis, which is also called mayflower and the name is given to the yellow bloom of the marsh marigold, Caltha palustria, often known, less lovingly, as "blobs." The Caltha is common to both Europe and America and, though it is often hereabout known by the nickname of "cowslip" which the early English settlers seem to have given it, I do not hear it called mayflower. In localities where the arbutus is not common the name mayflower is here most commonly given to the pink and white Anemone nemorosa, the wind flower of the meadow margins and low woods, and to the rock saxifrage, Saxifraga virginiensis, both of which are among the earliest blossoms of the month.

None can visit Plymouth without wishing to climb the bold promontory of "hither Manomet." The legend has it that Eric the Red, the Viking who explored New England shores centuries before the first Englishman heard of them, made this his burial hill and that somewhere beneath its forests his bones lie to this day. I sought long for mayflowers on the seaward slopes and in the rough gullies of these "highlands of Plymouth," I did not find them there.

On the landward slopes, gentler and less windswept, down toward the "sweet waters" that flow from inland to the sea, you may with patient search find many. But the heights shall reward you, if not with mayflowers with greater and more lasting joys. The woods of Manomet were full of butterflies. Splendid specimens of Vanessa antiopa danced together by twos and threes in every sunny glade, the gold edging of bright raknent showing beneath their "mourning cloaks" of rich seal brown. Here in the rich sunshine Launcelot might well have said:

Myself beheld three spirits, mad with joy,
Come dashing down on a tall wayside flower.

Here Grapta interrogationis carried his ever present question mark from one dry leaf to another asking always that unanswerable "why?" Here Pyrameis huntera, well named the hunter's butterfly, flashed red through the woodland,scouting silently and becoming invisible in ambush as a hunter should. Here a tiny fleck of sky, the spirit bluebird of the spring which the entomologists have woefully named Lycaema pseudargiolus, fluttered along the ground as if a new born flower tried quivering flight, and brown Hesperiidae, "bedouins of the pathless air," buzzed in vanishing eccentricity. But it was not for these that I lingered long on the seaward crest. There below me lay the bay that the exploring Pilgrims entered at such hazard, that but the day before had been blotted out with a freezing storm and gray with snow, now smiling in unforgettable beauty at my feet, bringing irresistibly to mind the one who sang,

My soul today is far away,
Sailing the blue Vesuvian bay.

At Naples indeed could be no softer, fairer skies than this June day of late April brought to Plymouth Bay and spread over the waters that nestled within the curve of that splendid young moon of white sand that sweeps from Manomet to the tip of the sandspit, with the Gurnet far to the right and Plymouth's white houses rising in the middle distance. It lacked only the cone of Vesuvius smoking beyond to make the memory complete.

Nor has the Bay of Naples bluer waters than those that danced below me. Some stray current of the Gulf Stream must have curled about the tip of Cape Cod and spread its wonder bloom over them. Here were the same exquisite soft blues, shoaling into tender green, that I have seen among the Florida keys. Surely it was like a transformation scene. The day before the torn sea wild with wind and the dun clouds of a northeast gale hiding the distance with a mystery of dread, a wind that beat the forest with snow and chilled to the marrow; and this day the warmth of an Italian spring and the blue Vesuvian Bay.

The Pilgrims had their seasons of storm and stress, but there came to them too halcyon days like this when the mayflower bloomed in all the woodland about them, the mourning cloak butterflies danced with joy down the sunny glades, and the bay spread its wonderful blue beneath their feet in the delicious promise of June. Nor is it any wonder that in spite of hardships and disaster manifold they yet found heart to write home that it was a fayere lande and bountiful.

But for all the lure of Plymouth woods with their fragrance of trailing arbutus, from all the grandeur of the wide outlook from Manomet Heights, the hearts of all who come to Plymouth must lead them back to the resting place of the fathers on the brow of the little hill in the midst of the town. There where the grass was not yet green and the buttercups that will later shine in gold have put forth but the tiniest beginnings of their fuzzy, three-parted leaves, I watched the sun sink, big and red in a golden mist, over a land of whose coming material greatness Bradford and his fellow Pilgrims could have had no inkling. Seaward the tropic bloom of the water was all gone, and there as the sun passed I saw the cool steel of the bay catch the last rays in little dimples of silver light. Manomet withdrew, blue and mysterious in the haze of nightfall. Out over the Gurnet, beyond, the sky caught purples from the colors in the west, and there, dropping below the horizon line, east northeast toward England, I saw a sail vanish in the soft haze as if it might be the first Mayflower, sailing away from the heavy-hearted Pilgrims, toward England and home. The sun's last ray touched it with a fleck of rose as it passed, a rose like that Which tipped the petals of the mayflowers that I held in my hand, mayflowers that sent up to me in the coolness of the gathering April night a fragrance as aromatic and beloved as is the memory of the lives of the Pilgrims that slept all about me on the brow of Burial Hill. Bradford wrote gravely and simply the chronicles of these, and no more, yet the fervent faith and sturdy love for fair play, unquenchable in the hearts of these men, breathes from every page, a fragrance that shall go forth on the winds of the world forevermore.