Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

Trailing Arbutus In Appalachia

Gravelweed trailing arbutus

Trailing Arbutus 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. This time of the year the easiest way to find it is to follow your nose.

The little wildflower may only grow to an inch or two above ground, but it’s fragrance fills my entire yard.

The flowers are a combination of white and pink, the leaves are green, brown, and leathery feeling. Trailing Arbutus grows all along the edge of the bank in my backyard. If you go searching for the little plant I suggest you look along the banks at your place.

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 this 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.”


Hope you enjoyed the wildflower details and the folklore.


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  • Reply
    July 6, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    wondered what trailing arbutus was–it is not what I thought at all.
    Grandpa Walton talked about it often on the Waltons’.

  • Reply
    April 20, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Nope, don’t have that flower here either.
    Very interesting story. Makes me want to follow the flower trail and see where it goes.

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    April 14, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Tipper: That is a neat low growing flower.

  • Reply
    April 14, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Lynn-I used to press flowers and make things with them-but I haven’t in a long time. Maybe I should start again-Thanks for the comment!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    April 14, 2010 at 9:08 am

    I have not seen this one, Tipper, but I am wondering if I confuse it with spring beauties from a distance. Now I’ll have to go and look more closely. Thanks for the story!

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    April 14, 2010 at 7:49 am

    I must have lost my comment somewhere….at any rate..heres another one..lol
    I believe that Manito was the spirit of Winter and the maiden the spirit of Spring…
    She has walked (stepped) along our banks barely holding on as the rains move the Trailing Arbutus futher down the bank every Spring…
    I never was fond of the brown spotted leaves but the flower
    is wonderful…but the leaves a reminder that Winter will come again…
    Do you have Birds Foot Violet? It is another leaf that I love…as well as the flower…

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    What a beautiful story about the trailing arbutus.I think it is such a pretty name for a flower.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    i love spring and all the beauty around us.. and i so enjoy reading your folklore and learning about the different plants.. do you press them? and put the different flowers in a book?? i would love to be able to do that… *sigh* we dont have any of these types of plants around my place.. thank you so much for sharing 🙂
    big ladybug hugs

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Hi Tipper, There are so many little white wildflowers. Wonder how one keeps them all straight… I need to get a TN Wildflower book… WELL—that will come after I learn all of the birds of TN… ha ha (Wish I had more time in my life!!! ha)

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

    I love folk lore. Can’t you just see a small child drifting off to sleep while a loving mother tells the tale?
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 9:39 am

    There is nothing better than a fragrant flower. Thanks again for sharing the information.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Interesting story and I do believe we have some of this on our farm.

  • Reply
    April 13, 2010 at 8:44 am

    I remember seeing it in the woods behind my house in Mt. Airy! The story really makes it special!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    April 13, 2010 at 8:00 am

    It is a beautiful little flower, I will be sure to look for it when we get to NC.

  • Reply
    Pat in east TN
    April 13, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Very interesting and I believe I saw this beautiful little flower along my woods line the other day while walking … I’m going to check it out this morning.
    The wildflowers around here are coming on like crazy and there seems to be an abundance of them this year. Trillium, my favorite, is everywhere in my woods … I love it!!!

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