The Mayflower and the Mayflower
Most students familiar with the history of the United States of America know that in 1620 a ship named the Mayflower transported a group of so-called Puritans to the shores of what would become the modern-day Commonwealth of Massachusetts. On the stern of that ship is an engraving of a mayflower. Hence the name the Mayflower.
However, the engraved flower does not look like the Mayflower native to North America. Nor does that engraving look like the Mayflower common to most of Europe. What is engraved on the ship the Mayflower is the flower of the Hawthorn. It is not the flower of the trailing arbutus, commonly called the Mayflower in North America, nor is it the Mayflower of most Northern Europe, known as the Lily of the Valley.
The trailing arbutus is the flower native to North America that is the state flower of Massachusetts and the provincial flower of Nova Scotia. The plant grows in the wild from Newfoundland and Labrador to Florida and west as far as the Northwest Territories. The plant, which is quite fragrant, forms low clumps of leathery leaves. It is not quickly established or transplanted. It does not like to be disturbed and is susceptible to drought and flood. Even in the best of conditions, it is a slow-growing plant. These factors combined lead to the relative scarcity of the plant in the wild and in domestic gardens.
Lily of the Valley
In Northern Europe, the flower known as the Lily of the Valley is also known as the Mayflower. In France, the lily of the valley (muguet in French) is given as a gift on May 1st and has been for centuries. Legend tells us that the custom began in 1561 when King Charles IX received a sprig of the lily as a symbol of good luck.
The King liked thought this was splendid and started a tradition. On May 1st, all the French court ladies would be presented with sprigs of Lily-of-the-Valley. What a great way to celebrate May Day.
In the British Isles, the Hawthorn is known as Mayflower. While the fragrance of the trailing arbutus and the lily-of-the-valley are pleasant, the hawthorn flowers are not. It is thought that bringing the flowers indoors will bring bad luck. But it is more likely that the odor they produce has kept people from getting them indoors. They emit the same chemical that decaying fresh releases. They smell of death.
There are a good many legends that surround Hawthorn. They are thought to be inhabited by fairies or the Wee Folk. Cutting or damaging these trees in any way will incur the wrath of these mythical beings. To give an idea of their importance in antiquity, the site where Westminster Abbey stands was formerly known as Thorney Island. It was named after a grove of thorn trees where Celtic priestesses practiced their Goddess-centered religion.