Minnesota Profile: Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens)
A slow-growing, long-lived, dwarf shrub with delicate, vinelike stems that creep along the ground. Each stem can be up to 3 feet long and is covered with bristly, brown hairs.
Found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the continent, from New England to Saskatchewan. Trailing arbutus is scattered throughout the coniferous forest biome in the northeastern third of Minnesota. People rarely see this plant because ground mosses and fallen leaves cover and conceal it. A good place to look for trailing arbutus is Scenic State Park near Bigfork.
Sandy, acidic soil in undisturbed pine forests.
Stiff and leathery, remaining green all year, even in winter.
Flowers and Pollinators
One of the first flowers to open in the spring, usually in late April or early May. Each flower is about one-half inch long, white or pink, and has a waxy appearance. The flowers have a spicy fragrance and even a spicy flavor. Although the flowers all look alike, some plants produce only male flowers and others only female ones. They are pollinated by a variety of flying insects and ants.
Purple, about the size of a large pea. Fruits ripen four to six weeks after pollination. When ripe, the fruit splits open and ejects most of the seeds, which are embedded in a sweet, sticky pulp. Ants gather the nutritious pulp and carry it back to their nest. The ants eat the pulp but discard the seeds in their underground chambers, which provide ideal conditions for the seeds to germinate and grow. This is a classic example of mutualism, in which both the ants and the trailing arbutus benefit from each other's actions.
In some places people collect trailing arbutus for winter decoration and wreaths. Because trailing arbutus grows very slowly, repeated collecting has nearly eliminated it from some areas. It is protected on all state lands, including state parks and forests.
By Welby Smith, DNR Natural Heritage and Nongame Research Program Botanist.