The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Trailing Arbutus

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984-2012

Issue: April, 1984

trailing arbutusTrailing Arbutus. Illustration by Susan M. Thigpen.Trailing Arbutus is an evergreen, woody perennial plant. It is low and creeping and also called may flower or ground laurel. It grows in acid soils of woods. Small clusters of intensely fragrant, waxy, white or pink flowers appear in early spring among the bronzed leaves of the previous season. New bright green leaves appear in the early summer.

In days gone by, many a young girl eagerly looked for the first Trailing Arbutus blooms. They are reputed to have the sweetest smell on earth, one unmatched by any perfume. There have been many poems and songs mentioning it and interweaving it with love.

Sadly, today there are few Trailing Arbutus plants left. There are so few that several states have laws protecting them.

If you have ever seen it and smelled its lovely fragrance, count yourself among the lucky. It’s a scent you’ll never forget.

I have only seen it growing once and I was lucky because it was a time it was in bloom. I was walking through the deep woods and decided to get off the path and find my way back by going straight up the top of a ridge, through the undergrowth. Right in the middle of nowhere, there was a small patch of Trailing Arbutus. It caught my eye and finally dawned on me what I was looking at. I had only seen it in books before and I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity. I took the time to sit down on the carpet of pine needles and leaves and just appreciate being there. I knew it was getting rare, so I didn’t take as much as one bloom. I did lean over close and breathe in its fragrance.

In the filing system of memories in my brain, that moment is one of my favorites.

As I continued my trek to the top of the ridge, twisting left and right to get past the heaviest undergrowth, I realized that I would probably never be able to relocate the small patch of heaven. It was a brief, chance encounter with one of Mother Nature’s finest efforts; an experience not to be forgotten.