Epigaea is Greek for upon the earth; repens is Latin for creeping.
Sandy to peaty woods. Typically grows under oaks, pines, hemlocks, and near other members of the heath family, such as lowbush blueberry.
Prefers shade to part-shade, and acidic, humus-rich, and well-drained soil. Has reportedly been used as an evergreen ground cover in optimal conditions, if it can be propagated.
A shade-loving, slow-growing, evergreen, perennial, trailing shrub, which can form a dense, low mat 4-6 inches high in optimal woodland conditions. Stems bear fragrant spring flowers, and are typically found hidden beneath light leaf litter in early spring. This beloved plant is both sensitive to environmental changes and disturbances, including drought, flooding, lumbering, grazing, deer browsing, and too little or too heavy leaf cover. It is difficult to cultivate and is increasingly rare in the wild. Traditionally, it is thought to be the first spring bloom the Pilgrims found, marking a sign of hope at the end of their initial tragic winter.
Leaves and Stems
Leaves are alternate, broad (up to 4 inches by 2 inches), leathery, oval, green-brown and deeply veined. As they age, leaves often look weather-worn, spotted and increasingly brown, though they remain attached to the vine. In early spring especially, live plants may appear dead. Stems are somewhat woody, hairy, and light brown. Hairs are rust colored.
Trumpet-shaped, waxy flowers grow in small clusters from leaf axils, and are white to pale pink, with an exquisite scent described as both sweet and spicy. The tubular corolla is ½ inch long, and nearly as wide at the rim, where it spreads into 5 lobes. The inside of the corolla is hairy. Flowers in a single cluster appear similar, but are either male or female.
Fruit is a whitish 5-chambered berry, appearing somewhat like a raspberry. Seeds mature and fruit splits in June.
Appearing early in spring, it attracts both bees and butterflies, and is a larval host to the hoary elfin (Callophrys polios). Birds and insects eat the tiny seeds.
Very difficult to propagate, establish, and perpetuate. Seeds may be collected. Very unlikely to transplant successfully, and should never be taken from the wild. This difficulty may be due to its relationship with soil mycelia.
Some Native Americans used an infusion of the leaves for kidney disorders while others took a decoction of the plant to ease abdominal pains.
West Woods (see garden map)
Plant Profile by Kate O’Dell