‘History nerd’ tracks down rare trailing arbutus in the wild
May 9, 2022
About 18 months ago, self-proclaimed history nerd John Summerlot started a trek through Indiana University history for the famed trailing arbutus flower. It sent him searching through pages of archival newspaper clippings, examining a hand-drawn map and encountering multiple dead ends, and eventually led him on a rigorous hike along the shores of Lake Monroe.
The trailing arbutus is rare but plays a prominent role in IU Bloomington’s history. The Arbutus yearbook gets its name from the flower, as does the Arbutus Society. The arbutus is featured on the IU president’s Jewels of Office, as well as nearly all IU medals. Minutes from a 1983 Board of Trustees meeting even describe IU Presidents William Lowe Bryan and Herman B Wells having bouquets of arbutus in their offices every spring.
It was a historian for Kappa Alpha Psi, an African-American fraternity founded at IU, who sparked Summerlot’s quest to find arbutus in the wild. The historian had found references to a place called Arbutus Hill and wanted to know its location. Summerlot started digging through University Archives for answers.
“I go down these history rabbit holes,” said Summerlot, coordinator of IU military and veteran services.
Arbutus Hill got its name from the flower that professor Herman B. Boisen discovered there in 1877. The white or pink creeping flower is scarce and has a very short bloom window, but it grew plentifully on a hill that is described in several newspaper articles as being about four miles from Bloomington. A passage in the first edition of the Arbutus yearbook from 1894 reads, “To this spot, which has been christened ‘Arbutus Hill,’ crowds of enthusiastic pedestrians go every April to secure the dainty blossoms that lie hidden under the dead leaves of winter.”
Photos courtesy of IU Archives
Several stories published in the early 1900s in what’s now known as the Indiana Daily Student also reference the popularity of Arbutus Hill. An article from April 1906 declares, “There are two trips that Indiana University students make one or more times during their college careers. One is a trip to Brown County, and the other is to Arbutus Hill.”
A 1923 IDS article describes a botany professor proposing the IU Bloomington senior class purchase Arbutus Hill to protect the patch of flowers, but those plans never came to fruition. Several documents describe efforts to transplant the trailing arbutus to other locations, but those often fail because of the specific balance of growing conditions required.
Summerlot used what little geographical information he could glean from archival documents, as well as a 1905 map that Boisen’s son drew marking areas where arbutus may be found, to try to determine the location of Arbutus Hill. He started talking to homeowners in the area he identified, and the information they provided helped Summerlot determine that what once was known as Arbutus Hill is now private property behind Latimer Woods on Bloomington’s east side. He described it not as a hill but as a very steep series of ravines and gorges.
“We went all over Arbutus Hill and never found any flowers,” Summerlot said. “I was just about to give up when a local naturalist who was friends with the property owner contacted me one day and said, ‘Hey, I found some.’ Out of a hill that was once covered with this, there were two little plants, and neither of them were flowering.’”
Summerlot was disappointed. He wanted to experience the famed flower that made Arbutus Hill a destination. Luckily, his journey wasn’t over yet. Through his research into the flower, Summerlot got in touch with Michael Chitwood, property manager of the IU Research and Teaching Preserve. Chitwood said the trailing arbutus has become even more scarce since Arbutus Hill was a popular destination in the 1900s due to shifts in land use in the surrounding counties, the limited range of the plant to begin with, and the fact that the plant has very specific needs to grow. That adds to the arbutus’s allure.
“It is amazing to think of a species being isolated to one ridge in a county for hundreds of years,” Chitwood said. “Maybe it was due to early conservation, less deer pressure, or just by luck the ridge was too steep to log; but we all need to recognize how lucky we are to have such a special plant that has captured the hearts of so many in our own county and within the university still in existence.”
Chitwood knew of a small patch of arbutus near Lake Monroe and agreed to lead Summerlot to it as long as he kept the exact location a secret for protection.
As with the rest of the search for the arbutus, getting there wasn’t easy. The nearly 1.5-mile roundtrip hike covers abrupt hills and often muddy terrain. You have to climb over several downed trees and walk along the steep shoreline of Lake Monroe before finding a small patch of the elusive buds. Summerlot returned to the spot a couple of times so he could see the arbutus in bloom and finally do what very few people currently at the university have.
“The reason I wanted to find the actual flower was to sniff it,” he said. “It’s supposed to have this really unique smell. And, when Arbutus Hill was covered in it, the scent would get trapped in the ravine and you could just stand there and breathe it in.”
Summerlot talks about the flower’s scent in a video he posted to YouTube, saying he doesn’t have much language to describe flower smells. “That’s pleasant, that’s pretty,” he said. “It’s flowery.”
The scent of the roughly 6-by-3-foot patch wasn’t as strong as what students once experienced at Arbutus Hill but, after more than a year of periodic research and multiple hikes, it was still just as sweet.