From Gazette editions of May 1987:
On Sunday, when the sun came out, I took to the West Tisbury woods to see what, during last week’s dank, dark days when I stayed indoors might have arrived unheralded. In a moment in the spring so much peeks forth from under the brown leaves of winter, and it is a pity to miss any of it.
As it is with the tundra of the north, so it seems to be at first in spring with Island woods. It is the tiniest flowers — those requiring, I suppose, little sun and nourishment because they are so small — that are the harbingers of a warmer, brighter season.
On the path that I took, I had a glimpse of Glimmerglass Pond, where a swan was sailing. In winter, ducks and geese were feeding there, at least from the end of the pond where I passed by, but they are gone now. From time to time, I hear a pair of geese honk as they go overhead.
The woods sounds that I heard as I went looking for wildflowers were a red-winged blackbird whistling and an industrious downy woodpecker’s rat-a-tat-tat on his hunt for bugs in the trunk of a dead tree. It was early morning and there were no car sounds, though a plane engine whirred at the airport as the first flight of the day took off.
So it was with the revving engines on the Vineyard that made the woodpecker look up from his meal. There was a carpet of deep red swamp maple flowerets covering the ground as I entered the woods, and a patch of bright green moss was putting forth stiff golden hairs. A little purple myrtle had gone wild along a bank.
The path I followed clearly had hungry predecessors. A clump of fur — white tail, white fluff — was all that remained of a rabbit that had hopped too far from safety, and the deep striped blue of blue jay feathers signaled that a jay, too, had been caught in the jaws of a marauder.
I tangled my face in a spider’s web that was being woven between two trees. It made me wonder again as I had before when a spider started descending from our kitchen ceiling to the floor, then changed its mind and climbed again, what makes a spider choose to spin where it does.
I came out of the woods in a pasture and across it in a rutted road, our state flower, the pink and white trailing arbutus, caught my eye.
Mayflower, a botany book tells me, is its other name. I had never known they were the same. And in the book I also learned that some say it was the Pilgrims who gave arbutus the name “mayflower.” It was the first flower that they found and, greeting it with joy, they named it for their vessel.
As I tramped back through the woods, I found huckleberry bells and a grass I did not know was putting forth fuzzy yellow flowerets. A cardinal surprised me, offering his flash of brilliant red. Then as West Tisbury fields and roadsides came into view again, they were splashed with glowing forsythia. In Alice Mathewson’s dooryard, a cluster of daffodils nodded and in Ann Burt’s meticulously groomed grass, blue-purple ground cover was mingled. We talked of what it was. Was it poor man’s shilling? No, she decided, but it bore the equally evocative name Gill-over-the-ground. Boiled with mutton broth, an old book says, it helpeth weake and aking backs.”
The showers have surely been depressing, but since they have brought the gaiety of spring to woods and fields, they must be forgiven.
The mayflower is most often found in the woods but here on the Island it is also found in clearings. As a member of the heath family the trailing arbutus is a lover of acid soil — no problem at all on the Island — but in other areas the plant seeks acidity under pine trees. The only type of soil that the mayflower does not like is moist and soggy. The range of the trailing arbutus is from Newfoundland west to Saskatchewan and then south to Alabama, Georgia and Wisconsin. In the more southern states the mayflower is found in higher zones, on hills and mountains.
The flower is the part of the plant which makes it a favorite with New Englanders. The odor is great: sort of spicy in aroma, and so subtle. The flowers are five-lobed and in clusters. They start blooming in some areas as early as February and continue to bloom through May.
The mayflower is our state flower and is on the list of plants which are protected. It is suggested that you do not pick these flowers. In other times when development was not rampant and habitats were not uprooted for house starts there were many more mats of mayflowers on the Island. The mayflower has lost much of its habitat, so enjoy what you have. If you must pick a small bit, do so on your own property, or with permission of the owner, and don’t pull off the blossom — snip it off.
The trailing arbutus was used as an edible plant. The raw flowers were excellent “nibbles” in salad and a tea made from the whole plant was used as a diuretic.
Compiled by Alison L. Mead