Mayflower: A Herald of Spring and Our State Flower

November 2019

The flower that adorns the top banner of our website is Epigaea repens (trailing arbutus or mayflower), a small plant with a storied history. Widespread throughout Massachusetts and the eastern United States but not common in the landscape, it is a trailing, evergreen shrub from the Ericaeae (heath family), a group that also includes cranberries and blueberries. Epigaea is both delicate and tough— it grows slowly and is vulnerable to disturbance, but thrives in highly acidic sandy or peaty soils that are inhospitable to many plants. It is often found growing along trail cuts, sloping hillsides, and rocky outcrops—areas that are exposed or steep enough that leaf litter will not build up over the plant, and open enough for it to get a few hours of direct sun a day. Young forests with thinner and more open tree canopies offer ideal growing conditions for Epigaea; the species has become less abundant in New England over the last century as our forests age, growing denser and more shaded.

Anyone who has tried to grow mayflower in a garden knows that it is far from easy! This plant needs a spot that is consistently moist but well-drained, with soil that is acidic but also humusy, and just the right amount of light. However, once it is properly established, the reward is tremendous. Its white to pink, bell-shaped flowers are among the earliest to bloom in spring (hence mayflower) and have a lovely, strong fragrance. They not only harken the end of winter for us, but are an important source of nectar for bumblebees and other early-emerging insects.

Epigaea leaves are astringent, leathery, and covered in coarse hairs to discourage herbivory, though the larvae of some insects specialize in eating them. These include the leaf-mining beetle Brachys howdeni, and a species of twirler moth aptly named Aroga epigaeella. It is also a likely host plant for the hoary elfin butterfly (Callophrys polios), a species that is declining significantly in the eastern part of its United States range. Interestingly, the hoary elfin’s primary host plant is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, or bearberry, another trailing shrub in the heath family. Both bearberry and mayflower (as well as other ericaceous plants) contain the compound arbutin, which is considered a strong urinary antiseptic. Epigaea was used medicinally by Native American groups including the Cherokee and the Iroquois, to treat kidney disorders, diarrhea, and indigestion.

For decades, trailing arbutus was harvested rampantly each spring to be hung in sweet-smelling garlands. In the 1890s and early 1900s, public concern grew that this unchecked collecting endangered the species and might lead to its extirpation. To build awareness of the need to protect it, conservation advocates began to lobby the state to adopt the mayflower as its floral emblem. After a few failed attempts, the state legislature gave the task of choosing a state flower to the Department of Agricultural Resources, who’s leaders punted on the issue and put it to a state-wide vote among school children in 1918. The youth voted overwhelmingly for mayflower to be the official state flower, choosing it over water lily. In 1925 the state legislature further amended this statute to actually prohibit the wild harvesting of mayflower, making it illegal to “pull up”, “dig up”, or “injure” any part of the plant located on public lands, punishable by a fine of $50. And to further deter poachers, the fine was to be doubled “if a person does any of the aforesaid acts while in disguise or secretly in the nighttime.”