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My Spring Ritual

As soon as the snow is gone, I visit a certain spot in the woods, to look for trailing arbutus.

Epigaea repens, an evergreen sub-shrub, grows only a few inches tall. Three-inch dark green leaves, leathery and sparsely hairy, grow mostly oval, with a heart-shaped base and tiny pointed tip. The reddish stems root as they creep over the soil, resulting in a mat.

Clusters of waxy, trumpet-shaped, five-petaled flowers, white or the palest pink, half an inch long, bloom and fade in a few days. The purple fruit looks like a small raspberry. The leaves are aromatic, and the flowers have a heavenly smell, which reminds me of gardenias. The plant does not hold the flowers up, but hides them under the leaves. It can get away with that because not only flying insects, but also ants pollinate it. (Ants also carry off the fruit to eat it, distributing the seed).

In 1918, after the Massachusetts legislature failed to agree on a flower, the schoolchildren of the state, asked to vote for their favorite, elected the trailing arbutus the official flower of the Commonwealth.

It’s also known as “mayflower” — one of those common names I puzzle over. The story goes, the pilgrims named it this. But here, as long as I can remember, the flower’s long gone by May. The weather down on Plymouth Bay should be warmer than here inland, in early spring. Has the weather warmed that much since 1620?

Although native to much of eastern North America, it’s rare and endangered, because it needs very specific conditions: very acid, sandy, well-drained soil with a good humus content, filtered sunlight, protection from wind and no accumulation of dead leaves. It grows mainly in pine woods, and depends like pines on symbiosis with mycorrhiza fungi. Enzymes from these threadlike underground growths break down soil components into forms plants can use.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been watching one patch of trailing arbutus. Some years it shrinks; sometimes it grows a little — but not very much. Last summer, for the first time, I found a new patch; will it be there still? I feel protective toward this plant; I’ll only show it to people I trust not to disturb it.

That means, to see it well, to smell that heart-melting fragrance, we have to get right down on the ground. I wear old clothes and stretch out prone. It feels good: my obeisance to Spring.

Photo by C.H. Clark - Trailing arbutus, in pine needles, with a few springs of partridgeberry (the smaller leaves)

Text and photo © Copyright 2005 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 8 April 2005

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