As I walked back from Granny’s the other day I smelled the sweetness of a spring time bloom. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, even though I stogged around in the edge of the woods where the aroma was the strongest.
The scent reminded me it’s almost time for one of the hidden wildflowers of spring to bloom.
After supper last night I climbed through the brush on the back bank looking for Trailing Arbutus. The plant is a wildflower that grows throughout the eastern part of North America. The pint size flower can be found from Newfoundland to Florida.
Since Trailing Arbutus grows so closely to the ground it can be difficult to see. The leaves are leathery feeling and range from green to a brownish color as the season progresses. The flowers are a combination of white and pink, and sort of trail out from under the leaves. The sweet flower grows all along the edge of the bank in my backyard.
The plant is just beginning to bloom, once the blooms come out in full force the sweet scent perfumes the entire area even though the wildflower only grows to an inch or two above ground.
Native Americans used Trailing Arbutus as a medicinal plant to aide in symptoms associated with the urinary tract and kidneys. Early Appalachian settlers picked up the knowledge from local Indians and continued to use the plant for kidney trouble.
I stumbled onto a bit of folklore about the plant. I found it on a site full of Native American Lore. Here is the story behind how Trailing Arbutus came to be the tribal flower of the Ottawa.
“Many, many moons ago, there lived an old man alone in his lodge beside a stream in the thick woods. He was heavily clad in furs; for it was winter, and all the world was covered with snow and ice.
The winds swept through the woods; searching every bush and tree for birds to chill, and chasing evil spirits over high hills, through tangled swamps, and valleys deep. The old man went about, and peered vainly in the deep snow for pieces of wood to sustain the fire in his lodge.
Sitting down by the last dying embers, he cried to Kigi Manito Waw-kwi (the God of Heaven) that he might not perish. The winds howled, and blew aside the door of his lodge, when in came a most beautiful maiden. Her cheeks were like red roses; her eyes were large, and glowed like the fawn’s in the moonlight; her hair was long and black as the raven’s plumes, and touched the ground as she walked; her hands were covered with willow-buds; on her head were wreaths of wild flowers; her clothing was sweet grass and ferns; her moccasins were fair white lilies; and, when she breathed, the air of the lodge became warm and fragrant.
The old man said, “My daughter, I am indeed glad to see you. My lodge is cold and cheerless; yet it will shield you from the tempest. But tell me who you are, that you should come to my lodge in such strange clothing. Come, sit down here, and tell me of your country and your victories, and I will tell you of my exploits. For I am Manito.”
He then filled two pipes with tobacco, that they might smoke together as they talked. When the smoke had warmed the old man’s tongue, again he said, “I am Manito. I blow my breath, and the lakes and streams become flint.” The maiden answered, “I breathe, and flowers spring up on all the plains.”
The old man replied, “I breathe, and the snow covers all the earth.” “I shake my tresses,” returned the maiden, “and warm rains fall from the clouds.”
“When I walk about,” answered the old man, “leaves wither and fall from the trees. At my command the animals hide themselves in the ground, and the fowls forsake the waters and fly away. Again I say, ‘I am Manito.'”
The maiden made answer: “When I walk about, the plants lift up their heads, and the naked trees robe themselves in living green; the birds come back; and all who see me sing for joy. Music is everywhere.”
As they talked the air became warmer and more fragrant in the lodge; and the old man’s head drooped upon his breast, and he slept. Then the sun came back, and the bluebirds came to the top of the lodge and sang, “We are thirsty. We are thirsty.”
And Sebin (the river) replied, “I am free. Come, come and drink.” And while the old man was sleeping, the maiden passed her hand over his head; and he began to grow small. Streams of water poured out of his mouth; very soon he became a small mass upon the ground; and his clothing turned to withered leaves.
Then the maiden kneeled upon the ground, took from her bosom the most precious pink and white flowers, and, hiding them under the faded leaves, and breathing upon them, said: “I give you all my virtues, and all the sweetness of my breath; and all who would pick thee shall do so on bended knees.”
Then the maiden moved away through the woods and over the plains; all the birds sang to her; and wherever she stepped, and nowhere else, grows our tribal flower — the trailing arbutus.”