Spring Beauty, Trailing Arbutus, and the Coming of Spring

The first wildflowers of spring are Hepatica, Trailing Arbutus, and Spring Beauty.  This year, Hepatica was the first to show a white (sometimes lavender) blossom that occasionally overtops last year’s maple and beech leaves on the forest floor.  Growing nearby, Spring Beauty came next, its white, candy-striped petals attracting a few bees and flies for pollination.  Trailing Arbutus blooms in an altogether different habitat, a forest of pine trees and oaks.  It  often conceals its fragrant white blooms underneath its tough, evergreen leaves.

Hepatica acutiloba, ca. 2003, image taken near Traverse City.
Hepatica acutiloba, ca. 2003, image taken near Traverse City. Image provided by the author.

Hepatica is so interesting it deserves a full story by itself—that to appear in coming issues—so Spring Beauty and Trailing Arbutus will occupy us here.  It is appropriate they are paired since they both figure in Native American legends about the return of spring.  The following excerpt is taken from The Red Indian Fairy Book, published in 1917.  Disregarding its somewhat racist title (Are Native Americans really “red”?), it tells the legend of the Spring Beauty, a story attributed to the Ojibwe (Chippewa).

Legend of the Spring Beauty


An old man was sitting in his lodge, by the side of
a frozen stream. It was the end of Winter, the air
was not so cold, and his fire was nearly out. He
was old and alone. His locks were white with
age, and he trembled in every joint. Day after
day passed, and he heard nothing but the sound
of the storm sweeping before it the new-fallen

One day while his fire was dying, a handsome
young man entered the lodge. His cheeks were
red, his eyes sparkled. He walked with a quick,
light step. His forehead was bound with sweet-
grass, and he carried a bunch of fragrant flowers
in his hand.

“Ah, my Son,” said the old man, “I am happy
to see you. Come in. Tell me your adventures,
and what strange lands you have seen. I will tell
you my wonderful deeds, and what I can perform.
You shall do the same, and we will amuse each

The old man then drew from a bag a curiously
wrought pipe. He filled it with mild tobacco, and
handed it to his guest. They each smoked from
the pipe, and then began their stories.

Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty), image taken ca. 2003, near Traverse City. Image provided by the author.
Claytonia virginica (Spring Beauty), image taken ca. 2003, near Traverse City. Image provided by the author.

” I am Peboan, the Spirit of Winter/ said the
old man. ” I blow my breath, and the streams
stand still. The water becomes stiff and hard as
clear stone.”

“I am Seegwun, the Spirit of Spring,” answered
the youth. ” I breathe, and flowers spring up in
the meadows and woods.”

” I shake my locks,” said the old man, “and the
snow covers the land. The leaves fall from the
trees, and my breath blows them away. The birds
fly to the distant land, and the animals hide them
selves from the cold.”

” I shake my ringlets,” said the young man,
and the warm showers of soft rain fall upon the
Earth. The flowers lift their heads from the ground,
and the grass grows thick and green. My voice re
calls the birds, and they come flying joyfully from
the Southland. The warmth of my breath unbinds
the streams, and they sing the songs of Summer.
Music fills the groves wherever I walk, and all
Nature rejoices.”

And while they were thus talking, a wonderful
change took place. The Sun began to rise. Again
the warmth stole over the place. Peboan, the Spirit
of Winter, became silent. His head drooped, and
the snow outside the lodge melted away. Seegwun,
the Spirit of Spring, grew more radiant, and rose
joyfully to his feet. The Robin and the Bluebird
began to sing on the top of the lodge. The stream
murmured past the door, and the fragrance of open-
ing flowers came softly on the breeze.

The lodge faded away, and Peboan sank down
and dissolved into tiny streams of water, that van
ished under the brown leaves of the forest.
Thus the Spirit of Winter departed, and where
he melted away the Indian children gathered the
first blossoms, fragrant and delicately pink, the
modest Spring Beauty.

(The same story, this time with a beautiful maiden rather than a youth, has been told about the Trailing Arbutus.  It has been attributed both to both the Iroquois and the Ojibwe traditions.)

The final paragraph was added to the story by the narrator of the legend—or so it seems to me.  For one thing, Spring Beauties have no fragrance, at least as far as I can tell.  They are not pink, but white with pink stripes, and their blossoms last for only a day or two.  Who would want to pick them?

However, the whole plant might have been harvested for another purpose: eating.  Underneath the soil—sometimes as deep as six inches—a corm guards the life of the plant when it is not growing.  Sometimes nearly as large as a walnut, it is prized as a spring food for all who love the woods.  Without the bitterness of other leaves and roots, it can be roasted or eaten raw.  Considering their beauty, it is hard for me to dig up very many of them, but at a time before forests were cut down, they would have provided tribes with a plentiful food supply in early spring.

Spring Beauties stay above ground for only a few weeks.  Before the canopy of the hardwood trees fills in to block the sun, they complete their life cycle, bearing flowers and developing fruit before disappearing in early summer.  For ten months they sleep in the soil, only sending up shoots after the snow has melted.  Like Squirrel Corn and Dutchman’s Breeches which grow in Northern Michigan hardwoods, it is described as an ephemeral, setting seed while the sun can still penetrate the leafy overstory.  Their transitory nature makes them all the more dear to us.

Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus), image taken ca. 2003 near Traverse City. Image courtesy of the author.
Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus), image taken ca. 2003 near Traverse City. Image courtesy of the author.

Trailing Arbutus is an altogether different kind of plant.  It’s tough leathery leaves persist year-to-year, hiding the fragrant white flowers beneath.  They live in the pine forest, appearing on mossy banks, though I have seen them in wet places like the Skegemog Preserve.  Because of their beauty, their refreshing comment on the change of seasons, and the rich green of their leaves, they were commonly ripped from the ground for decoration.  Here is an article lamenting the destruction of Trailing Arbutus from the Record-Eagle dated 1923:


Woman’s Club Pleads for Vine

Great Patches of Bloom Are rapidly Being Burned By Thoughtless Persons

Some time ago, when it seemed that spring might be coming, the Woman’s Club sent out a pleas to all seekers of wild flowers to use care in picking them so as not to disturb the roots.

Now that the Trailing Arbutus is in bloom this plea is again broadcasted.

To those who can remember back but a few years, the present feeble bloom of the spring’s loveliest flower, is a most pathetic thing.  In the plots which have been picked over year after year the vine is disappearing.  Instead of a blossom which rivaled the apple blossom in size, the arbutus has shrunk to a tiny flower on a short stem.

A pair of scissors would prevent this gradual disappearance of this typically Michigan vine.  It is the constant pulling up by the roots which has made barren the great patches of arbutus which not long ago filled the pine woods, so the Woman’s Club urged all those seeking this spring flower to carry with them a small pair of scissors with which to clip the stems.

The article points out several things, both about the plant and about the times.  It was formerly abundant and more prominent than now.  From a blossom rivaling that of an apple blossom, it has “shrunk to a tiny flower on a short stem.”  Edward Voss, in Michigan Flora, states that the flowers are often nearly hidden beneath the leaves—scarcely visible to wildflower aficionados.  To those who decry the stripping of stems along with flowers, he offers the consolation that that stem and flowers emerge from a “stout, woody tap-rooted crown”, a hardy structure which may resist the savagery of collectors.  Like the Spring Beauty (which is not related), the Trailing Arbutus seeds are distributed by ants which feast upon a food coat that surrounds the growing part of the seed.

I have never seen Trailing Arbutus with its stems held up high to display flowers as large as apple blossoms.  Could it be that humans have gotten rid of that trait through genetic engineering?  That is, by harvesting the largest blossoms did we drive evolution forward in the direction of smaller ones hidden under leaves?  Clipped before they reproduce, the most showy flowers would not produce seed and would disappear over time–much as mowing has produced a variety of lawn weeds that complete their life cycles in dwarf form.  It does not take DNA technology to change the gene make-up of organisms.

One more thing about the article: in 1923 the newspaper editor chose to publish an article warning about overharvesting a wildflower found in pine woods near the city of Traverse City.   Would such an article be published today?  I would argue, “No”, since nobody knows about Trailing Arbutus.  By “nobody” I do exaggerate, but only by a little.  In earlier times the people of Northern Michigan were more in touch with nature: they paid attention to wildflowers and the creatures that inhabited the land around them.  Now it is an unusual person that can identify Trailing Arbutus, let alone consider picking it to brighten up the house.  Our obsession with technological gadgets—our iPads and iPhones–has replaced our connection to nature, that shift working to preserve wildflowers.  Not all components of modernity serve to attack nature—thank Heaven.

Spring Beauty and Trailing Arbutus, two very different plants that announce spring in Northern Michigan, give us a sense of community, a belongingness that join us all in nature, time, and place.  We welcome them, however different they are, because they speak of the end of cold and ice, the beginning of warmth and harvest.  Let us go out and look for them this month, but only to admire them, not to pick.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of the Grand Traverse Journal.