It would not be easy to say which is our finest or most beautiful wild flower, but certainly the most poetic and the best beloved is the arbutus. So early, so lowly, so secretive there in the moss and dry leaves, so fragrant, tinged with the hues of youth and health, so hardy and homelike, it touches the heart as no other does.
April’s flower offers the first honey to the bee and the first fragrance to the breeze. Modest, exquisite, loving the evergreens, loving the rocks, untamable, it is the very spirit and breath of the woods. Trailing, creeping over the ground, hiding its beauty under withered leaves, stiff and hard in foliage, but in flower like the cheek of a maiden.
One may brush away the April snow and find this finer snow beneath it. Oh, the arbutus days, what memories and longings they awaken! In this latitude they can hardly be looked for before April, and some seasons not till the latter days of the month. The first real warmth, the first tender skies, the first fragrant showers–the woods are flooded with sunlight, and the dry leaves and the leaf-mould emit a pleasant odor. One kneels down or lies down beside a patch of the trailing vine, he brushes away the leaves, he lifts up the blossoming sprays and examines and admires them at leisure; some are white, some are white and pink, a few are deep pink. It is enough to bask there in the sunlight on the ground beside them, drinking in their odor, feasting the eye on their tints and forms, hearing the April breezes sigh and murmur in the pines or hemlocks near you, living in a present fragrant with the memory of other days. Lying there, half dreaming, half observing, if you are not in communion with the very soul of spring, then there is a want of soul in you. You may hear the first swallow twittering from the sky above you, or the first mellow drum of the grouse come up from the woods below or from the ridge opposite. The bee is abroad in the air, finding her first honey in the flower by your side and her first pollen in the pussy-willows by the watercourses below you. The tender, plaintive love-note of the chickadee is heard here and there in the woods. He utters it while busy on the catkins of the poplars, from which he seems to be extracting some kind of food. Hawks are screaming high in the air above the woods; the plow is just tasting the first earth in the rye or corn stubble (and it tastes good). The earth looks good, it smells good, it is good. By the creek in the woods you hear the first water-thrush–a short, bright, ringing, hurried song. If you approach, the bird flies swiftly up or down the creek, uttering an emphatic “chip, chip.”
In wild, delicate beauty we have flowers that far surpass the arbutus: the columbine, for instance, jetting out of a seam in a gray ledge of rock, its many crimson and flame-colored flowers shaking in the breeze; but it is mostly for the eye. The spring-beauty, the painted trillium, the fringed polygala, the showy lady’s-slipper, are all more striking to look upon, but they do not quite touch the heart; they lack the soul that perfume suggests. Their charms do not abide with you as do those of the arbutus.
These still, hazy, brooding mid-April mornings, when the farmer first starts afield with his plow, when his boys gather the buckets in the sugar-bush, when the high-hole calls long and loud through the hazy distance, when the meadowlark sends up her clear, silvery shaft of sound from the meadow, when the bush sparrow trills in the orchard, when the soft maples look red against the wood, or their fallen bloom flecks the drying mud in the road,–such mornings are about the most exciting and suggestive of the whole year. How good the fields look, how good the freshly turned earth looks!–one could almost eat it as does the horse;–the stable manure just being drawn out and scattered looks good and smells good; every farmer’s house and barn looks inviting; the children on the way to school with their dinner-pails in their hands–how they open a door into the past for you! Sometimes they have sprays of arbutus in their buttonholes, or bunches of hepatica. The partridge is drumming in the woods, and the woodpeckers are drumming on dry limbs.