Trailing Arbutus

Trailing Arbutus



There is a flower whose name I need not call.
Which shyly hides beside the crumbling wall.
Or lifts, through drifts of leaves, her modest head
And looks about, and asks, " Is winter dead? "

In England, the hawthorn is universally known
as mayflower, or may; but in America, especially
in New England, that name is given to the fragrant
pink-and-white blossoms of the arbutus. After that
first terrible winter which the Pilgrim Fathers spent
on the stem coast at Plymouth, as the spring ap-
proached, and the snow melted, bare spots appeared
on the summit and sides of Burial Hill. From un-
der the dead grass and melting ice, clinging closely
to the ground, peeped the bright leaves and clusters
of its delicate blossoms, harbingers of spring. No
wonder that those early pioneers, grave and austere
as they were, loved them and called them may-
flowers. The good ship, which had brought them
hither, was also thus honored.

The Greek name given by Linnaeus is Epigaea
repens, which means creeping on the earth. It be-
longs exclusively to the new world and has no classic
associations, yet is not altogether without tradition.

Among the legends of the Iroquois is found the
story of its birth.

Long, long ago, before the white man had set
foot on the shore of the new world, an old man
lived alone in a tepee, in one of the forests near the
great lakes. His beard and hair were long and
white. He was dressed in skins of the beaver. A
bearskin hung before the door of his lodge, for it
was winter, and snow and ice were everywhere.
The nearby stream was frozen over and the wind
moaned through the tree-tops of the forest. One
night after he had been abroad in the wood, picking
up broken branches and roots of trees that he might
keep up his fire, as the wind blew and the snow
drifted against his door, he cried out loudly, pro-
testing that all must perish. Suddenly, the bear-
skin that hung before his door was pushed aside
and a beautiful maiden entered. Her cheeks were
like roses, her eyes were bright, and her hair was
as black as the crow's wing. She wore a mantle of
sweet grass and ferns and on her head was a wreath
of flowers. As she entered, the whole lodge seemed
filled with warmth and perfume. The old man
gazed in wonder at the fair visitor, and said : " Wel-
come, my daughter, to this poor shelter ; my fire is
low, but draw near and tell me whence come you
and who are thy people, and I will tell thee of my

The maiden smiled and the dark little lodge
seemed filled with brightness. The old man took
down his pipe and when he had filled and lighted
it, he began:

"I am Manito, the Great. The breath of my
nostrils causes the waters in the rivers and the lakes
to stand still in frozen silence."

The maiden replied : " Manito is great, but when
I smile, flowers spring up everywhere and the fields
are carpeted with green."

Then said Manito : " When I shake my hoary
locks, the earth is wrapped in a snowy pall, the leaves
fall from the trees, the birds fly before my breath,
and the winds wail all over the land."

"Oh, Manito is very great," said the maiden,
" more terrible is he than the red man; but, as I
pass along, the leaves' cover the branches which thou
hast laid bare, the birds sing, and the breeze is soft
and pleasant."

As the maiden was speaking, Manito heard not.
His head had dropped on his breast ; his pipe had
fallen from his hand, and he was sleeping. The
maiden waved her hands. His head began to shrink
and streams of water ran down from his long locks
and beard ; his garments turned into green
leaves, and birds flew into the lodge singing their
sweet songs. The maiden took from her bosom some
beautiful fragrant flowers, white and rose-pink, and
hid them under the leaves that had sprung up about
her feet, and before she put them there she kissed
them and said, " I give to thee, all my beauty, ray
sweetness, and my most fragrant breath, and men
shall gather thee with bowed heads and on bended
knee." Then she passed on over the fields and up
the hills. Everywhere the birds, the winds, and
the brooks greeted her with a joyous song, and
wherever she stepped, but nowhere else, grows the
arbutus to this day.

Mrs. Whitman wrote these lines:

There's a flower that grows by the greenwood tree.
In its desolate beauty more dear to me
Than all that bask in the noontide beam
Through the long, bright summer by font and
Like a pure hope nursed beneath sorrow's wing
Its timid buds from the cold moss spring.
Their delicate hues like the pink sea shell
Or the shaded blush of the hyacinth's bell,
Their breath more sweet than the faint perfume
That breathes from the bridal orange-bloom.

Whenever the choice of a national flower has
been under discussion, it has been a prominent can-
didate, and in 1909 it was the leader in a contest
among the school children of Wisconsin, as their
choice, for a state flower. In some parts of that
state it has become customary to call a certain day
in the spring Arbutus day. Under the supervision
of a committee of club women, the children gather,
and in conveyances contributed, and in many cases
driven by the farmers, go out into the woods in
search of the blossoms. On their return, the flowers
are placed in boxes and sent to Milwaukee and other
large cities to be distributed as the committee de-
cides. There has been much criticism of this whole-
sale gathering and fears have been expressed that
before many years the plant may have become only
a memory. It is already practically exterminated
in New York state, where once it grew in abund-
ance. It does not bear transplanting well, nor does
it thrive in any but a wild state. It is becoming
more restricted in territory and scarcer every year.
Suggestions have been made that laws be enacted
for the protection of our vanishing wild flowers
like those for the protection of game and fish.

The trailing arbutus grows only in North Amer-
ica. It is the national flower of Newfoundland and
is found along the eastern coast as far south as
Florida and as far west as Minnesota, where, how-
ever, it is rare, growing only in territory adjacent
to Duluth, on the Kettle River, and in the valley of
the St. Croix.

The arbutus or strawberry tree, which is men-
tioned by Pliny, belongs to the same family and has
many of the characteristics of its less imposing rela-
tive. It has the same smooth red bark and glossy
evergreen foliage. The blossoms are the same, only
larger. It was used by the Romans with other
symbolic trees and flowers at the festival of Pales,
the goddess of pastoral life, and was dedicated to
Candia, the sister of Apollo, who used a rod from
this tree to drive away witches and to protect chil-
dren from illness and witchcraft. The fruit was
of the size and appearance of the strawberry, but
ripened so slowly, that, like the orange tree, fruit
and blosscnn occupied the tree at the same time.
Pliny gave it the name unedo, because it was so
bitter that " he who ate once, would eat no more."
In Spain and Italy, however, it is still an article
of food. It is said to resemble cranberries in flavor,
for which it is sometimes used as a substitute. The
Abbe Barthelemy, in his Travels of Anacharsis, de-
scribes these trees as they grew on the summit of
Mt. Ida, in Crete. This oriental arbutus was fre-
quently referred to by ancient writers. Horace cele-
brated it in his odes, and, in the Aneid, the bier of
Pallas is described by Virgil as covered with arbutus
rods and oaken twigs. Numerous other allusions
are made to it by the classic poets.

Tributes to the mayflower or trailing arbutus have
been generally confined to American writers and
almost every New England author has at some time
written affectionately of the sweet-scented blossoms.
Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Higginson, among
prose writers, have given it especial mention, and
a volume of some size might be compiled from the
poems written of the modest little flower. Perhaps
the best-known verses are by Whittier, who writes
of the mayflower and the pilgrims:

" God be praised ! " the pilgrim said,
Who saw the blossoms peer
Above the brown leaves, dry and dead,
" Behold our mayflower here."

O sacred flowers of faith and hope.
As sweetly now, as then.
Ye bloom on many a birchen slope,
In many a pine-dark glen.

So live the fathers in their sons,
Their sturdy faith be ours,
And ours the love that overruns
Its rocky strength with flowers.

Whittier- The MayFlowers.