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Stop and Smell the Trailing Arbutus

The Trailing Arbutus of Ridge Haven

Trailing Arbutus
Trailing Arbutus at Ridge Haven Homestead

Trailing Arbutus–my second favorite Spring Wildflower!

My first encounter with the Trailing Arbutus happened in April, 2018. Our family visited some friends for lunch, and the hostess provided each child with a list and a camera, along with the instructions to “Go find wildflowers!”

Well, we all found a treasury of beauty in her woods, but not the Trailing Arbutus!

White trailing Arbutus
White Trailing Arbutus at Ridge Haven Homestead

Oh, no! For that gem, she advised that we try Paint Creek, on the loop trail behind the campground. She described where we might find the flower, but that since it is an early Spring Wildflower, we may be too late.

At the next chance we got (1-2 days later) Adam and I drove through the park and headed out on the loop trail. We came across a patch of trailing Arbutus in its drying up stages, then farther along the path (where we saw the BEAR) we found a fresh patch!


See also Eat Your Weeds and

Early Spring Nature Walk for more on wildflowers we love!

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Pink Trailing Arbutus

A Rosy clump on our driveway wall

Oh, the aroma!

The Trailing Arbutus really is a diamond in the rough–a hidden treasure. You have to know to look for the pink or white flowers under the leathery evergreen leaves, and often you really have to get down on your hands and knees to unearth the whole plant from last Fall’s leaves!

But…if you pursue this unassuming wonder, you will love the experience! For the smell, often compared to a vintage perfume or my Grandmother’s fancy soap, simply must be experienced!

Trailing Arbutus blooms

Pure white blooms on our ridge

The Trailing Arbutus of Ridge Haven

At Ridge Haven Homestead, we have 26 acres. And, it turns out that we have the perfect microclimate for wild blueberries, huckleberries, Mountain Laurel, Flame Azaleas, Pink Lady’s Slippers (my very favorite–see Lady’s Slipper Lane) and, yes, the lovely Trailing Arbutus!

Pink Trailing Arbutus

Pink blooms at Ridge Haven Homestead
Pink Trailing Arbutus clump

From what am learning, the Trailing Arbutus and the Pink Lady’s Slipper orchid both depend of the symbiotic relationship between themselves and a special fungus in the soil in order to grow. That may explain why we have both in our property–the growth requirements are pretty specific.

This is taken from Encyclopedia.com about the Trailing Arbutus

Trailing arbutus, Mayflower, or ground laurel, one of the best-loved American wildflowers, said by Whittier to have been the first blossom seen on these shores by the Pilgrims (introduction to “The Mayflowers” ). The plant blooms in early spring; its creeping stems bear clusters of sweetly fragrant pink or white flowers that are sometimes hidden by the hairy evergreen leaves. The leaves were once used in making a diuretic tea and were also said to be astringent and tonic. Roots of the trailing arbutus live in a partnership arrangement (mycorrhiza) with a fungus (see symbiosis). The plant is difficult to cultivate, and its existence is endangered by the zeal of flower pickers. In its native habitat, trailing arbutus seems to prefer the acid soil of pinewoods of the eastern part of North America. It is the provincial flower of Nova Scotia and the state flower of Massachusetts, where a law protects the plant. The trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) should not be confused with Arbutus, a related genus (including the madroño) also of the heath family. The names Mayflower and laurel are also used for other plants. Trailing arbutus is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Ericales, family Ericaceae.

Pink Trailing Arbutus

Cute little clump hidden in the leaves

Here at Ridge Haven, we have acidic soils, full of wild blueberries and rhododendron, wintergreen, and Arbutus. See Huckleberry Haven or Blueberry Hill?

Here it is in very early Spring, just about to bloom on our property. This was on my birthday, ☘️ March 17 ? so about 3 weeks ago.

Trailing Arbutus buds

Buds/immature blooms opening in March
Trailing Arbutus closed blooms

Just beginning to open in Spring
Trailing Arbutus

Closed blossoms
Trailing Arbutus early Spring flower buds

White flower buds

Where to look for the Trailing Arbutus

We have found the Trailing Arbutus on several hikes around our regions as well, so, although the plant may be rare in some environments, if you’re hiking along a wooded trail in upper East Tennessee, your chances are pretty good to find the flower in late March and early April. If you know where to look! We found a nice patch up on the Chimney Rocks trail near Weaver’s Bend just two days ago. See Sabbath Hike to the Chimney Rocks The flower was blooming in the higher elevations, but was dried up at the bottom. On our property, ours is still in bloom, but is reaching its end for this year.

My favorite book for learning about wildflowers of our region is Jack Carman’s Wildflowers of Tennessee. I like it because he describes his own experiences with the flowers he’s photographed, and where to find them by county and sometimes by specific local spots. He’s a neat man who we’ve met and chatted with.

My other favorite book for wildflower ID is the classic Audubon Guide to Wildflowers, Eastern Region. This guide is organized by color, making it a breeze to find what you’re looking for. Make sure you get the book that matches your region.

We use many other wildflower books that are also useful. If you’re hiking in the Smokies, then this is a wonderful resource, because it tells you which trails have which flowers at what times of year! Great Smokey Mountain Wildflowers.

Moonlit Hike

Last night, I decided to take a moonlit walk before retiring. I found some pretty Arbutus, as well as some lovely moss. Funny how everything takes on a romantic look in the moonlight! Moss

Moss by moonlight

Here’s the Trailing Arbutus by night, with the help of my flashlight!

Trailing Arbutus

Arbutus by moonlight
Trailing Arbutus

Twin blossoms

Why do I love the Trailing Arbutus?

I like it that it’s unassuming, yet unforgettable.

Also, the fragrance is lovely, and difficult to describe.

I think I enjoy the trailing Arbutus so much also because it is a bit of a hidden treasure. Not everyone sees it, even though it’s in plain sight!

When we were hiking on Sabbath, probably 30 or so people walked by the clump of blooms that we hiked past, but I found it!


Well…other than the fact that I’m a bit of a wildflower nerd, I think it’s just because I was paying attention. I do hike along with my eyes wide open for wildflowers, edible trees, and interesting critters!

So…happily, I could pull my husband over and have him bend down to inhale the sweet fragrance of the lovely little flowers! ?.

Stop and Smell the Trailing Arbutus

Bonus Beauty

We also found this Tiger Swallowtail ( I mistakenly called it the Spicebush Swallowtail at first) flitting to and fro among the Wood Vetch growing along the trail. Greg was able to get close enough to snap this shot, while I was not! We can work as a team, right?

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly on Wood Vetch
Tiger Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail

Seize the day!

With the Trailing Arbutus, as well as all the seasonal wildflowers, you have such a small window of opportunity–just a week or two out of the year, to experience this smell, then it’s gone til next Spring!

So…my advice to you is this:

  • Get out in Nature

  • Poke the leaves aside

  • Get down on your knees, and

  • Stop and Smell the Trailing Arbutus

Don’t wait!

It’s well worth the pause!


Did you enjoy reading about our Spring Wildflowers?

Let me know in the comments below!

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Final note: All photos are my own and may not be used without permission. Thanks!

8 Replies

  1. Had no idea there was an arbutus wildflower, however I know a woman named Arbutus 🙂 Thanks so much for linking up at the Unlimited Link Party 73. Pinned.

What is your experience? 💜 I read every comment, and so many times I find that I gain encouragement from what’s shared. ❤️