2019 Spring Wildlings: Epigaea & Viola

“Gardening is complicated, and prejudice simplifies it enormously” Allen Lacy.

I have always been partial to garden volunteers. (The plant kind, though I’d welcome the rarer two-footed variety, gladly.) I’m especially fond of wild flowers — a/k/a weeds with a press agent. Here are two of my all-time favorite native, flowering, ground covers:

Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus, The Mayflower)  Z 3-8

copyright 2019 – Lois Sheinfeld

In the 1932 American classic, The Fragrant Path, author Louise Beebe Wilder described Spring blooming Epigaea repens as “[one] of the earliest and perhaps the most beloved of our wild flowers. . . .  It is called in New England the Mayflower and is said to have been so christened by the Pilgrims, who saw in the intrepid resurrection of the delicate leaves above last year’s brown and withered foliage, an analogy of their own triumph over grim and bitter experience. . . .  This is one of the plants that should be protected against extermination.”

Almost 40 years earlier, another important American author, Mrs. William Starr Dana, voiced her concern and fears for E. repens. In her book, According to Season, published in 1894, Dana writes about taking a walk in the woods where she “discovered the thick, somewhat rusty leaves, and the flowers, wax-like and spicily fragrant, of the trailing arbutus. . . .  I denied myself the pleasure of picking more than one or two sprays of these flowers”, she said, “singularly tempting though they were, so fearful am I of the extermination of this plant, the especial pride, perhaps, of our spring woods, and the peculiar object of the cupidity of ruthless flower-pickers”.

While Dana did not include herself among the “ruthless,” hundreds of plant lovers picking just “one or two sprays” could easily decimate the plant in the wild. A good reason to support a TOTAL ban.

Epigaea repens occurs naturally in my garden in acid, well-drained soil, in shade. It is a woody ornamental evergreen shrub whose spreading stems carpet the ground and produce very fragrant white and pink flowers in Spring. As you can see from the photo above, the foliage does look a bit tattered before the new leaves emerge. And it is believed that the plant benefits from a mycorrhizal partnership and therefore transplanting would likely fail. Yet, when conditions are right, you (and I) are lucky to have it.

(Note: I recommend and treasure another book by Mrs. William Starr Dana: How to Know the Wild Flowers (1893), considered to be the first field guide for American wild flowers. New editions are available. Also on point is the 1857 poem “The Mayflowers” by the American Quaker poet and abolitionist, John Greenleaf Whittier.)


Viola sororia (Common Blue Violet) Z 3-7

copyright 2019 – Lois Sheinfeld

copyright 2019 – Lois Sheinfeld

copyright 2019 – Lois Sheinfeld

Nothing common about this plant. It’s a beauty. Viola sororia is a North American native perennial with heart-shaped dark green foliage and rich ocean-blue flowers in the Spring. It thrives in shaded, moist, well-drained soil. In my garden it doesn’t appear in the cultivated beds, but rather favors areas covered in gravel. So while it is said to be deer-resistant, it may be a vole favorite.

V. sororia spreads by underground rhizomes and by seed. Each seed has a coating (elaiosome) which is nutritious and tasty and beloved by ants.  The ants take the seed to their underground nests to feed their larvae and then discard the seeds, effectively planting them. Lo and behold, about two feet away from the group of plants pictured above, I found ant holes and ants. Unfortunately, the ants scurried into the holes before I could take that picture. See above.

Viola sororia is the State flower of Illinois, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. I wonder if the ant is the State insect. It should be so honored.