When the sugar maples burst into their yellow-green froth, when spent white petals of shadblow flowers waft past on a breeze, and while the forest floor is still brown duff, this is a good time to see one of the most common plants in nature, a dominant understory species that many people have never noticed, seemingly as abundant as ants, the tiny plant named for the month in which it blooms: Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense).
Have you seen it? If you’ve seen one, you’ve probably seen many, because this plant virtually never shows up alone. Just four to eight inches tall, its bright green leaves may grow in a dense carpet of thousands, as a scattered sprinkle of hundreds, in a row of single leaves marching along a grit-filled crevice, and in countless other ways and places, but nearly always in groups.
Botanical note: While we may perceive each little Canada Mayflower shoot as an individual plant, in fact all the foliage we’re seeing could, together, be a single organism. One rhizomatous, fibrous-rooted clone of this species may be as much as twenty feet wide, and 30 to 60 years old.
Canada Mayflower does produce one small flower. Fertile stalks hold extra leaves and a spike of tiny white blooms. If pollinated - by bees, flies or beetles – each bloom becomes a pea-sized fruit that resembles a golden, speckled egg. These ripen to deep red as summer goes along, before being gobbled up by mice, chipmunks or ground-dwelling birds, or falling to the ground and being toted off by ants. But you might have to look hard to see the flowers or fruit: they grow way down near the ground, are often outshone by other plants, and may disappear before we spot them.
What’s so Great About It?
The really noticeable part of this plant is its foliage. Not just the cute, pointy-oval leaves, each with a curvy base wrapped snugly around its stem, smooth-surfaced, smooth-edged, minutely hairy below, each one growing randomly every which-a-way. No, as foliage goes, none of these qualities is particularly unusual. The remarkable thing about the foliage of this species is just how much of it there is, and growing in so incredibly many different kinds of places.
Canada Mayflower has what’s called “wide ecological amplitude.” The fact is, this plant grows naturally in at least three quarters of the North American continent: in 31 states, from the southeast coast of Georgia diagonally across the US to the western tip of Washington, and in all of Canada except the polar north. Even more impressive, it thrives in a vast range of soil and sunlight conditions, from swamps and bottomlands, to dry pine groves and oak woods, rich maple-beech stands and wet hemlock ravines, to fen uplands, bedrock balds and boreal forests. Depending on soil moisture and the nature of competing vegetation, Canada Mayflower can tolerate deepest shade, dappled light or daylong sun.
What does this mean for us gardeners?
Potentially a lot. For starters, Canada Mayflower should be a really easy plant for us to in our gardens. Few or no soil amendments are needed: this plant “seems oblivious to soil conditions, growing as well in bogs and rocky knolls, in sand as well as clay,” writes Bill Cullina in Growing and Propagating Wildflowers.
Next, it’s the perfect height for a ground cover plant, a native ground cover that thrives in shade! Plus it can grow in full sun or dappled light, in very acidic soils, and it stays green all summer… might be a great lawn alternative. It could be a lacy addition in all kinds of landscapes, and its fibrous, interweaving roots will help knit the soil together everywhere they go.
Finally, perhaps my favorite thing about this plant: in nature, it grows amicably with a vast array of companions. According to lists in just two books, American Plants for American Gardens (Roberts and Rehmann) and The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States (Benyus), Canada Mayflower can cohabit with about a thousand other species. Like soil fungus this is a species that’s welcome in many ecosystems. Like buttons in the Victorian Age, it may hold many things together. Presumably this plant also plays a large, although probably invisible, role in wildlife support and ecosystem functioning.
So… for those of us who try to garden with plant communities and not just single species, Maianthemum canadense is an excellent addition to almost every kind of garden. It can either stand alone in a dramatic drift, or mingle and meander here and there amongst the others players. My personal hope is that more native plant nurseries will soon offer it for sale.
Important Note: The original (longer) version of this article was first posted in the excellent blog: Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.
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