Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

The Hidden Wildflower

arbutus flower

Trailing Arbutus

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.”


Tipper

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Sandra Castle
    April 30, 2021 at 10:55 am

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. It is warm today in south Texas and we are blessed with a gentle spring rain. When the clouds move on to their next place and the sun comes over the lake again, our spring flowers will also raise their blessed heads to bid us a scented bide thee well.

  • Reply
    Walter Holokai, the Hawaiian Hillbilly
    April 30, 2021 at 8:40 am

    What a beautiful story. You are a talented writer Tipper. Thank you so much for the blog.
    It’s a window into nature and rich family life.

  • Reply
    Carol Roy
    April 29, 2021 at 7:39 pm

    Tipper very interesting story on this wee beautifully scented flower….we have them and they grown all along a pathway behind my home leading into the wooded area….have always looked for them in Spring time all my life….surprisingly we call them Mayflowers I have never heard them called anything else….I live in Eastern Canada and really enjoy your posts.

  • Reply
    Chip
    April 29, 2021 at 4:06 pm

    Loved the story thank you Tipper! Glad you found and posted that, it is so well written , beautiful.

  • Reply
    betty stephenson
    April 29, 2021 at 2:34 pm

    what a lovely legend i havent heard of it before but just loved it will have to check and see if its available here sounds like a great plant to have around have a safe and awesome week

  • Reply
    aw griff
    April 29, 2021 at 9:58 am

    One of my great aunts would come down from Columbus OH. to gather the arbutus for kidney and bladder medicine. Dad called her a little feisty spare (sparrow) bird. It was the farm she was raised on that now belongs to my immediate family. I really didn’t pay any attention to what she gathered but it had to be the trailing arbutus. On the south side of the hill where she gathered it also grew huckleberries, and as Ron mentioned also mountain laurel. I wish I knew what she called it but don’t remember so I’m going to call it (buffalo lettuce) like Ron’s Mom.

  • Reply
    Carolyn Anderson
    April 29, 2021 at 9:54 am

    Thank you Tipper for the wonderful story. These flowers grow over at David’s home place and everyone looked forward to seeing them every spring.
    The Pink Ladyslipper flowers are beautiful this year. We love spring time in the mountains.

  • Reply
    dee
    April 29, 2021 at 9:17 am

    Your Trailing Arbutus looks beautiful and that it has a sweet smell makes it even more attractive. I am back home in SC PA and getting to see my second spring but I was down south for the first spring this year and while I was out on a walk around my son’s pond, a beautiful scent was drifting across the yard. I asked my son where was that wonderful scent coming from and he said it was grama’s sweet shrubs. The bush had maroon type flowers on it but they looked almost like they were shavings of wood til you touched them and felt the softness. I googled it to see what the actual name was and found it is called Calycanthus. On you tube, a gentlemen also called it Carolina Allspice. He said the scent only comes as the flowers open. I just know that delightful scent would drift across the yard every day when I was out walking. The flowers aren’t as pretty as your Trailing Arbutus but oh my how good they smell. Check them out on utube.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    April 29, 2021 at 8:52 am

    You have encouraged me to search diligently in the woods all about for the Trailing Arbutus. I love when nature gives us a delightful fragrance we must search out. I have a very old white rose bush near the garage. When it blooms the entire yard is filled with the wonderful gragrance. Florist roses do not have much of a fragrance in comparison.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    April 29, 2021 at 8:25 am

    That was a FINE story this morning about the Native American Maiden and the Old Man. I really enjoyed it personally. The BEST nurse I ever worked with was ARBUTIS. Strangely, she was in TN but originally from Mingo County, WV—- as fine as a rooster with socks on she was!!!! I’m going to look for the trailing ARBUTIS and see if I can find it.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    April 29, 2021 at 8:09 am

    My favorite wildflower, so easy to miss but so nice to find. Your smelling it first is one of its best features, lots of sweet scent for such a tiny, shy flower. You have a treasure in your backyard. It seems to love the edges of a sunny cut bank. Every condition is habitat for something.

    I saw a lot of arbutus two weeks ago at the old Meadow Creek fire tower site on the Cherokee. My Mom taught me its name and she also called it ‘buffalo lettuce’. It is common in the sandy woods of the Cumberland Plateau in KY and TN, often growing in association with mountain laurel. I rarely see it here at the upper edge of the Georgia Piedmont though.

    I wonder why the nursery industry does not grow it for a ground cover. I would love to have some here on this dry hill. I think they could do well. But I’m pretty sure it would spread very slowly.

  • Reply
    elaine
    April 29, 2021 at 8:03 am

    tipper, i am grateful to have found your channel on YouTube, and your blog. you and yours are adding a little more depth to my life and sparking a deeper interest in my family’s heritage. thx,

  • Reply
    Larry Eddings
    April 29, 2021 at 8:02 am

    I had not heard the Ottawa story before. Many years ago, my father and I were hiking on the side of the mountain one spring and we found several Trailing Arbutus in bloom. He told me the name of those tiny, fragrant and beautiful wild flowers. He is gone on to heaven now and I still miss him very much. He taught me so many things. His birthday is next week. Your blog this morning reminded me of him. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Rick Shepherd
    April 29, 2021 at 7:41 am

    Beautiful story, Tipper!….It warms my winter heart as the sun warms the spring.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    April 29, 2021 at 7:08 am

    I think it is time for me to take my yearly walk in the woods.

  • Reply
    Troy L Carroll
    April 29, 2021 at 6:57 am

    Every day I spend on this earth I strive to learn more about the area I live in. My father once told me that if I can learn one thing per day, it has been a good day.
    I have often wondered what the little flowers in my are now I know. I thank you for your store and give me a new outlook on my world here in Dutch Cove just south of Canton,NC

  • Reply
    Sandra Jean Sweeney
    April 29, 2021 at 6:19 am

    Such a delicate. little flower! It’s as if those large, thick leaves are the flowers’ protector.

    Here in Pendleton County, WV, folks hunt for the first wildflower of spring – Colt’s Foot. Do you have a similar “hunt” in your area?

    • Reply
      Tipper
      April 29, 2021 at 9:03 am

      Sandra-not that I know of but it sounds like a great idea!

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