Human Flower Project
Thorny hedge or creeping shrub? There’s cross-Atlantic dispute over which plant gave its name to the Pilgrims’ ship.
Pilgrim Overboard—The Rescue of John Howland
Painting: Mike Haywood
At daybreak November 9, 1620, passengers on the Mayflower at last spotted land. They’d been on board for 66 days, having left Southampton, England, on September 16, sailing for the Hudson River. At the urging of the ship’s owner, Christopher Jones, who was ready to get on with business, they gave up on finding the Hudson and settled west of Cape Cod in Plymouth, Massachusetts, instead.
Half of the immigrants died that winter. The rest is historic gravy. Those who survived spent the next soevermany years trundling around in black outfits, shooting turkeys and testing the local Indians’ recipes with corn.
But what about the Mayflower? Jones took the ship back to England the following spring and made “another trading run to France later that year.” (He’d been an importer of cognac before transporting the Pilgrims.) One source says that by 1624, the ship was in such bad shape it was more valuable as scrap lumber and torn apart.
Photo: Mike Baker
None of this explains who named the ship and after which flower of May (arguably the most bloom-diverse month in both Englands, old and New). The State of Massachusetts adopted one mayflower as its floral emblem in 1918, triumphing with a vote of schoolchildren over advocates of the mountain laurel and water lily. But Epigaea repens is a New World flower; only a prescient and botanically exacting shipwright could have given the English boat such a name.
Far more likely is the hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna. This thorny hedge plant, widely known as “mayflower” in England, is “one of the nine sacred trees of the British Isles.” For centuries it’s been used as a heart remedy in herbal medicine. To confuse things further, there’s also wild lily of the valley (Maianthemum canadense) that grows in New England, known as Canada mayflower.
Logic and pilgrim pride, in our view, both favor the hawthorn rather than the lily or epigaea, a.k.a. “Trailing arbutus” and described as “a low creeping” plant. But as they say (or used to say), “it’s a free country.” Take your pick.
The Mayflower II (1957 replica), Plymouth, Mass.
Photo: James C. Ferenzi
The 1957 Mayflower II, a replica anchored in Plymouth Harbor, bears a white flower on its stern, but the painting is generic, and could be the hawthorn or arbutus. (This site suggests that paintings were commonplace on 17th century vessels, the better for non-readers.) Perhaps a stylized painting preceded the christening of the ship itself—with a generic flower-name to match.
Good wishes this Thanksgiving to those on both sides of the Atlantic, and the six other “seas” as well. To all who are about to venture forth with extended family for the weekend, we offer this suggestion from Pastor John Robinson’s farewell letter, read aboard the Mayflower September 1620, as the Pilgrims were leaving England.
“Your intended course of civil community will minister continual occasion of offense, and will be as fuel for that fire, except you diligently quench it with brotherly forbearance.”