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Mayflowers

Of all the plants on PEI, I think Mayflowers (Epigaea repens) are the ones with which Islanders have the deepest connection.  If you haven’t collected Mayflowers yourself, I’ll bet someone in your family has. For many, this flower’s beautiful aroma instantly conjures up pleasant memories.



The tradition of collecting Mayflowers goes back generations, and Mayflower hunts were once an annual spring activity in rural Island schools. In the early 20th century, the first Mayflower of the season was print-worthy news, as was the not-uncommon appearance of the odd Mayflower during a winter thaw.  As is the case today, you could find these popular flowers on offer at local markets in April and May, though the price hasn’t kept up with comparable commodities.  In the 1920s, two-dozen Mayflowers would set you back $0.30, more than the cost of a pound of lobster ($0.25).

 

Epigaea repens is one of the best binomials in botany, translating as “creeping upon the Earth”.  That’s exactly what this plant does: long, hairy stems creep along the forest floor, often covering large patches.  Oval, leathery, green leaves can be found year-round (even under the snow), but this plant is often overlooked when not in flower.  Mayflower is a member of the Blueberry Family (Ericaceae), and – like other members of this family – is common on poorer, acidic soils across the Island. I commonly find it along the sides of our clay roads where I’ll often smell it before I see it.  Flowers may be white or pink, and there’s some evidence to suggest sunnier spots produce more pink flowers.

 

It takes teamwork to produce a Mayflower, and that makes this plant difficult to cultivate.  It has an association with mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, and trying to grow it from cuttings in the absence of those fungi is often unsuccessful.  Mayflower is also among the many PEI wildflowers that use ants to disperse their seeds.  These myrmecochorus species (your word of the day!) add sweet or fatty structures to their seeds to attract ants.  The ants carry the seeds off, eat the plant’s offering, and then deposit the seed in their nutrient-rich waste areas, thus both spreading the seeds and leaving them in a good place for future germination and growth. 

 

As a slow-growing plant with social and economic value, Mayflower is vulnerable to over-harvest; it was almost extirpated from Massachusetts and hasn’t been confirmed in Illinois for more than a century.  It remains rare in some parts of its range and has legal protections in Massachusetts and New York.  Fortunately, Mayflowers are common on PEI but even so, it’s always important to pick responsibly: take only what you need, leave lots behind, and don’t pull or dig up the plants.

 

As a final note, Mayflowers generally flower earlier in spring than their name would suggest.  They were named not for the month, but for the famous 17th century ship which in turn was named for a type of Hawthorn common in England and said to symbolize new beginnings (Crataegus laevigata).

 

To make things even more confusing, the ‘mayflower’ name is also used for both our native Wild Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum canadense) and the cultivated Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis).  The alternate name of Trailing Arbutus may avoid the Mayflower mixups, though far fewer Islanders will know you are referring to their beloved Mayflowers.  Whatever you call them, they are a sure sign of spring on PEI untamed!

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