The mayflower became Massachusetts' official state flower in 1918 and Nova Scotia's provincial flower in 1901. It is native to eastern and central North America, from Ontario east to Newfoundland, south to Florida, west to Mississippi and north back up to Minnesota. If you happen to be walking in the woods, notice the attractive white blossoms or pleasing fragrance of the mayflower.
The mayflower is sometimes also known as the gravel plant, due to its ability for growing in sandy soil and gravel. In the medicinal plant world, the mayflower is almost always called the gravel plant for its ability to treat kidney stones. Another common name for this species is trailing arbutus due to its horizontal, creeping nature of growth. Its scientific name is Epigaea repens. There are several reasons why it was given the name of "mayflower." Early colonizers to the United States may have named it so since it was the first flower to bloom in spring. Those who sailed from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, may have nicknamed the showy flower after their ship.
The mayflower has dark green, shiny leaves that remain green throughout the growing season. The leaves, which are oval shaped, sometimes with a shallow lobe forming a heart shape, are up to 3 inches long. In spring, between March and May generally, the plant blooms to create star-shaped, five-petaled flowers. The flowers are white to light pink. In the summer, mayflowers grow berries that start off as pale yellow and ripen into a deep red. Mayflowers grow horizontally more than vertically and spread across the forest floor.
Generally, you will find mayflowers growing from the forest floor. Specifically, they prefer areas with sandy soil, peat or gravel close to or under coniferous trees. Mayflowers also need to grow in areas where they can receive ample sunlight, so you will not observe them growing under layers of leaf litter or under thick canopies of taller plants or trees. This means you will also find them growing in forest clearings.
Overall throughout eastern North America, mayflowers are common, states the US Forest Service. However in certain areas, the species is rare or endangered due to its vulnerability to human disturbances, from logging practices to hikers picking the plants. For example, the mayflower has been on Massachusetts' list of endangered plants since 1925. In Florida, it is at risk of becoming extirpated as there have been only 16 sightings of the plant as of 2004. In Indiana and Mississippi, the mayflower is ranked as uncommon as there have been only 50 or less sightings. On the other hand, in places like Kentucky, North Carolina, Ontario and Nova Scotia, mayflowers are very common.
- State Symbols USA: Massachusetts State Flower
- Link on Learning: Nova Scotia Provincial Flower
- US Forest Service: Conservation Assessment for Trailing arbutus
- United States Department of Agriculture: Epigaea repens L.
- Virginia Tech's Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation: Trailing Arbutus
- The University of Texas at Austen, Native Plant Database: Epigaea repens L.
- Photo Credit Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images