After a few years of trying, I finally caught trailing arbutus in bloom on Friday, April 13.
This is an uncommon species. Although it has a wide range (most of the US east of the Mississippi, and the upper Midwest ) it isn’t found in large numbers anywhere.
That might be because of its rather specialized growing requirements: moist but well-drained acidic soils. It likes undisturbed open woodlands, especially rocky slopes, where leaf litter doesn’t collect. Look for it whenever you see other species in the Ericaceae, like mountain laurel, blueberry and deerberry, and spotted wintergreen.
Many authors recommend against trying to grow trailing arbutus in the home garden: it is difficult to propagate, leading to poaching concerns; also, it is suspected that, like other species in the Ericaceae, it might have specific mycorrhizal associations without which it simply cannot grow.
It’s certainly a belly flower, but also technically a shrub. Epigaea repens stays low, the tough evergreen leaves lying flat along semi-woody stems that creep over the ground.
The plants are polygamo-dioecious, meaning that any given plant has two types of flowers: staminate and perfect, or pistillate and perfect. (See this post about maples for a more complete description of these terms.)
Also known as mayflower, this species has a delightful scent, but you have to get your schnoz right up in there to smell it.
Trailing arbutus is endangered in Florida and exploitably vulnerable in New York. It’s the state flower of Massachusetts and the provincial flower of Nova Scotia.
These pink-flowering and white-flowering specimens were blooming along a bank under mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) on Sugarloaf mountain.
How did you even see that?! I never would have recognized that as an arbutus!
I look at the ground so much that I often go off-trail. Also, common name confusion? This is not the same as the madrone you have in California (which are in the genus Arbutus); it’s in the genus Epigaea.
Well, that makes more sense, although there are low creeping manzanitas, so I figured that there could be a low creeping Arbutus too. I do not know what Epigaea is. I heard if before, but can’t remember where.