A Little Info. on Mayflowers…and Lilacs!

By Sarah Wright

A Little Info. on Mayflowers…and Lilacs!

Have you heard of the mayflower? Not the ship made famous by Columbus, but the state flower of Massachusetts and the provincial flower of Nova Scotia. In the early 1900s, the Massachusetts State Board of Education let school children decide on the state flower. The students picked the mayflower over the water lily, two to one. The flower can actually be found in every county in Massachusetts. Although less well known today, the mayflower once grew all over wooded areas in New Hampshire and was a favorite of many people.

The mayflower (also known as winter pink, trailing arbutus, or ground laurel) actually refers to a spring-blooming wildflower native to eastern North America and Canada, found in sandy or rocky soil in the shade of pines. What’s in a name? Well, according to plant folklore, the mayflower plant was the first blooming plant the pilgrims saw after their first very difficult winter in this new country. Historians believe that the mayflower is an ancient plant that may even date back to the last glacier period. Now, that’s a hardy plant! 

The mayflower is a trailing plant—a small evergreen creeping shrub—with fuzzy stems and clusters of waxy, pink, or white blooms that have a fragrant, sweet smell which intensifies over time. (The scent has been compared to orange blossoms in Florida.) The flowers peak from March through June. Years ago, people would collect the leaves for wreath-making, and at one time, mayflowers were used to treat kidney stones. Early in the season, the blooms are often hidden from view by the leaves.  

Here’s the tricky part: the flower is unusual in that it grows from a specific type of fungus that nourishes the roots. Ants disperse the seeds, but the plant rarely produces fruit, which means that the plant has become rare in recent years. Thankfully, many states protect the flower with laws prohibiting its removal. If you’re enjoying the outdoors, and find a mayflower growing in the woods of New Hampshire, feel free to take a photograph, but don’t pick it. You might find them growing along trail edges and in forest clearings; it’s a real treat if you find one.

Fortunately for local gardeners, the beautiful perennial wildflower is produced and sold by some garden centers and nurseries as an ornamental. Because it is difficult to transplant, many garden centers will order it only if requested. The mayflower trailing arbutus is a native plant, growing where other plants fail to thrive—under tall trees in the dense woods. The flower needs moist soil and partial to full shade, and likes acidic soil, which is good news for many residents of the Lakes Region. Cold climates as low as USDA zone 3 are actually better for the plant than the warm, humid weather of zones 8 and above. Those living below the Mason Dixon line are out of luck! Gardeners should plant the mayflower so that the top of the root ball is about one inch below the soil surface. Water deeply after planting, and then mulch lightly with organic mulch like pine needles or bark chips for best results.

Emma’s Perennials in Bristol stocks the mayflower. The greenhouse is located at 398 Borough Road and can be reached at 603-744-3805 for business hours. Cackleberries Garden and Gift Shop in Meredith also sells mayflowers and can order more if requested. The shop is located at 419 Daniel Webster Highway. For business hours and further information, call 603-279-8728. 

Check with your local garden center, and you might find it. If you can’t find the flower, many landscapers can recommend something similar. Perhaps Lakes Region residents can help revive this beautiful and traditional flower. 

The New Hampshire flower is a little more obvious, as it grows all over the place. It’s the beautiful and very fragrant purple lilac. (When I moved to the state years ago, I kept thinking, “Wow, so many people have lilacs growing in their yards.” Then I found out that it was the state flower and it all made sense.) I love lilacs, which can come in white, red, blue, pink, mauve, yellow, and of course, various beautiful shades of purple. The history of the lilac goes way back. It’s believed that they were growing in 1750 around Governor Wentworth’s mansion. Settlers most likely brought them over on the journey to this new world. 

The purple lilac became the official state flower in a 1919 legislative session. Many flowers were considered, like the apple blossom, purple aster, water lily, mayflower, and goldenrod. The top three were placed into a hat, and a blindfolded senate clerk drew the name of the purple lilac. The House didn’t like the Senate’s choice and preferred the apple blossom. To resolve the stalemate, a 10-man conference committee took on the task, and with the help of two college professors of botany, they held another vote and the purple lilac won. It was noted that the lilac, “symbolized the hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State.” The next time you see a lilac, think of how close we were to having the apple blossom as the state flower. 

Here are some helpful hints for homeowners considering planting a lilac bush. A new lilac takes about three to four years to establish. Lilacs are hardy from zones 3 to 7, and need a cold dormant period to start flowering. They also need well-drained, acid-to-alkaline soil. For full flowering to occur, a sunny location is a must. The root clump must be watered about one inch a week, and fertilizer or compost should be used in the spring. Most lilacs flower in late May. 

Both the mayflower and the lilac are very fragrant, but very different types of flowers. Celebrate New England history and consider one of these plants for your yard this season. Happy spring planting!

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