Massachusetts State Flower - Trailing-Arbutus

Was the flower named after the ship? Historians still don't know.

Was the flower named after the ship? Historians still don't know.

Also known as the mayflower, trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), grows throughout a wide portion of the eastern United States and into Canada. It has special meaning to the people of Massachusetts, who have had a long love affair with their state flower, beginning in the mid-1800s when children picked them in abundance for the annual May Day celebrations.


Trailing arbutus is a creeping perennial shrub with fuzzy foliage on stems that may reach 6 feet. It blooms in highly fragrant white or pink jasmine-like flowers from late April to mid-May. In nature, it grows in pine groves and other forested areas, thriving among the leaf litter and other plant debris on the forest floor. Before the trailing arbutus charmed the children of mid-1800s Massachusetts, the state’s Native American tribes used the plant for medicinal purposes, most notably to treat kidney disorders.


The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair prompted many states to determine a suitable flower to represent them in the "National Garland of Flowers." It took three tries to push through legislation aimed at making the trailing arbutus the official flower. Finally, after a vote by the state’s school children, the mayflower brought in over twice as many votes as its competitor, the water lily. In this case, the third time was indeed the charm.

Cultivation Notes

Nurseries in Massachusetts that specialize in native plants are the ideal place to shop for trailing arbutus stock for your garden. Your best chance at success in cultivating the plant is to mimic the conditions found in its natural habitat. Since it grows under the forest canopy, this means providing the trailing arbutus with dappled or partial shade and growing it in sandy, acidic soil.


In 1925, Massachusetts state officials felt that the trailing arbutus was becoming scarce in nature and proclaimed it endangered. Officials enacted a law fining those who pulled up wild mayflower plants or picked the flowers. The fines doubled if the dastardly act was performed at night, or while “disguised.” This law, though not enforced, is still on the books in Massachusetts. Although it isn’t seen in the abundance it was 200 years ago, neither the state nor federal government officially lists trailing arbutus as endangered. The U.S. Forestry service claims that trailing arbutus is “common and secure” within its range.

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