Mickey Rathbun: On the trail of trailing arbutus


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Back in Emily Dickinson’s day, flowers had cult followings, like celebrities. Poets wrote lavish verse devoted to particular flowers; artists lovingly rendered their portraits; secret admirers gave them in bouquets to their beloveds; society matrons planned walks in the woods in search of spring ephemerals.

Perhaps the most admired flower of all was a woodland groundcover called trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). This flower was said to be the first flower of spring, often peeking out from melting snow banks. The Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier spread the legend that the Pilgrims, after their first dreadful winter on Plymouth Rock, had seen the first flower of spring — the first flower of their New World. They called it mayflower, in honor of the ship that had brought them. Thanks to Whittier’s tale, here in New England, the mayflower (a different flower in England) and trailing arbutus are one and the same. In 1918, the mayflower was named the State Flower of Massachusetts.

Trailing arbutus grows in the woods, preferring exposed sites not covered by dead leafy matter. Unfortunately, they do not like to be disturbed, and logging and grazing have diminished their numbers dramatically. The plant is difficult to cultivate and is susceptible to extremely wet or dry conditions. Even under ideal conditions, it grows slowly.

The leaves start out splotched and brown speckled when the flowers first appear, but mature into broad, oval, aromatic evergreen leaves. The pale pink flowers mature to white. After the flower dies, a whitish berry appears that is attractive to birds, who spread the seeds in their droppings.

What made the trailing arbutus so special to Whittier, Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, was its early flowering habit. Dickinson described the flower as “Covert in April” but “Candid — in May.”

Its appearance bridged the transition between winter and spring, death and life. The demure plant represented hope and new beginnings. Wrote Whittier: “And through the dead leaves of hope shall spring/Afresh the flowers of God!”

Henry Ward Beecher, the Amherst College graduate who became one of the most famous religious figures of the 19th century (there’s a statue of him on the Amherst campus), wrote so tenderly of the trailing arbutus that his words seem intended as praise for an enchanting young lady:

“Its little viny stem creeps close to the ground, humble, faithful, and showing how the purest white may lay its cheek on the very dirt, without soil or taint…. If you smell it, at first it seems hardly to have an odor. But there steals out of it at length the finest, rarest scent, that rather excites desire than satisfies your sense. It is coy, without designing to be so, and its reserve plays upon the imagination far more than could a more positive way.”

We just don’t show our flowers that kind of respect anymore!

This spring, take a leisurely hike in the woods, moderating your pace so that you may just spy one of these floral treasures. Do not pick or otherwise disturb them, however. As with all wildflowers, it’s not only a violation of nature; it’s against the law.

Birding by ear

On Saturday (Earth Day), from 7 to 10 a.m., the Hitchcock Center is hosting a listening walk through a variety of local habitats.

Naturalist John Green will guide, pointing out the songs and calls of a variety of spring nesting songbirds. He will share strategies about how to distinguish some of the sound-a-like songs and will help you connect the visual image with the sound. He will explore several varied habitats and specify which species live in each so you can more easily determine who is singing. Members: $20; nonmembers: $30. To register, go to hitchcockcenter.org.

Transplanting shrubs and planting small ornamental trees

Learn how to plant and transplant shrubs and small ornamental trees at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge April 29. Certified Arborist Ken Gooch, the Forest Health Program Director for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, will present a hands-on workshop from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

All aspects of successful planting will be demonstrated as participants assist in transplanting and properly siting a multi-stem shrub and in planting a small tree. Learn how to successfully time the transplanting of shrubs to create minimal disturbance to the plant’s life cycle and to ensure a smooth transition to its new site. The differences between bare-root, container-grown, and balled-and-burlapped trees will also be explained.

Bring work gloves and dress for the weather.

For more information and to register, go to berkshirebotanical.org.

Medicinal herbs
for healthy aging

Herbalist and midwife Virginia Ahearn is offering an herbal medicine class for menopause and healthy aging Saturday from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at Indigo Massage, 45 Main St. Florence.

“There are many wonderful herbs for symptoms of menopause and aging, and for deeper hormonal balancing,” says Ahearn

Her goal, she says, is for her students to leave class knowing how to get started with herbs safely and with confidence. She teaches product information, understanding dosages and how long to take an herb, and tips for easily incorporating herbs into your life.

The cost for the class is $45, and includes a one ounce bulk herb sample. Some seats available for low income individuals.

Ahearn can be contacted at www.virginiaahearn.com, Facebook: Herbalist and Midwife Virginia Ahearn, or virginia@virginiaahearn.com.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers

On May 6, from 10 a.m. till noon, Berkshire Botanical Garden will host a lecture about spring ephemeral wildflowers of the Northeast. An optional walking tour through Stockbridge’s Ice Glen, a mossy ravine that’s home to lots of spring ephemerals, will follow.

Ted Eliman, staff botanist for Garden in the Woods and author of “The Wildflowers of New England,” will give the lecture and guide the walk. The lecture will take place at the BBG’s Education Center.

For more information and to register, go to berkshirebotanical.org

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.