Genus: Mitchella repens
Pronunciation: (Mih-CHELL-uh REE-penz)
• Evergreen, prostrate perennial vine
• Native to North America
• Hardy in Zones 3 to 9
• Twin white flowers in early summer followed by a single red berry
• Once used as medicine
• Plant in woodland garden or terrarium
Partridge berry, used in the past for both food and medicine but now mainly a landscape plant, is a member of a large family (Rubiaceae) of useful plants, including coffee, quinine, and a number of dye plants. The genus Mitchella has only two species, both small trailing evergreen subshrubs native to North America and Japan and South Korea. Linnaeus named the genus for John Mitchell, an eighteenth-century Virginia physician, cartographer, and botanist.
M. repens (repens is Latin for “creeping”) occurs in moist woods in eastern and central North America, often in the company of red and sugar maples, white cedar, witch hazel, and wintergreen. Plants are prostrate, branching and rooting at the nodes to form large mats. Individual stems are 6 to 12 inches long and smooth or downy.
The rounded, opposite leaves are dark green and marked with pale veins. They may grow to 3/4 inch long. The alternate common name running box alludes to the neat little boxwoodlike leaves and the plant’s spreading habit.
In early summer, a pair of tubular, four-lobed white or pinkish corollas opens within a single calyx at the end of a branch. Each sweet-scented corolla contains a pistil and four stamens; in some, the pistil is long and the stamens short while in others, the pistil is short and the stamens long. This arrangement prevents self-fertilization. Bees and small butterflies take care of pollinating the twin flowers, which produces a single red berry with two black dots at one end representing the point at which the corollas were once attached (hence the common names two-eyed berry and twinberry). The berries may persist on the plant for an entire year. Ruffed grouse (the “partridge” in the plant name), bobwhite, wild turkeys, red foxes, skunks, and white-footed mice eat a few, thereby helping to disperse the seeds. Humans find the berries edible but tasteless and seedy.
Partridge berry makes a fine ground cover with other woodland plants or may be planted in a rockery. It tolerates dry shade in rich soil. The plant also does well indoors in a terrarium planted with other woodland natives such as violets, ferns, mosses, lichens, and even seedling evergreens.
Partridge berry’s Asiatic cousin, M. undulata, has 1-inch-long leaves with wavy edges (undulata is Latin for “wavy”), and pink corollas with white-fringed lobes. It is hardy to Zone 6.
Newfoundlanders reserve the name partridge berry for lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), a plant closely related to cranberry and blueberry.
Partridge Berry Uses
Native Americans of eastern North America found a number of medicinal uses for partridge berry. Its alternate common name of squaw vine refers to its use to facilitate both childbirth and abortion as well as to relieve painful menstruation. The Cherokee prescribed it to stimulate sweating and urination and brewed an infusion to treat hives and sore nipples. The Iroquois took it to relieve back pain, vomiting, venereal disease, colic, and children’s fevers. They crushed the plant and applied it to bleeding cuts or placed a hot poultice on the chest to lower a fever. The Abnaki poulticed the plant on swellings. White settlers adopted some of these remedies; partridge berry was listed as a tonic, diuretic, and astringent in the U.S. National Formulary until 1947. These historical uses, however, apparently have not led to scientific examination of partridge berry’s efficacy.
The Cherokee and Iroquois also ate the fruits. The Iroquois mashed them into cakes, which they dried and later reconstituted with water to make a sauce or mixed them into corn bread. The Micmac of New Brunswick made a beverage out of partridge berry.
Growing Partridge Berry
Choose a site in full shade or one that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Partridge berry isn’t fussy about soil acidity. Plants are slow to become established but are rarely bothered by pests or disease. Because partridge berry naturally roots along the stems, an easy way to propagate it is to dig up a few sections of established plants and transplant them to new spots. You can also root 2-inch stem cuttings in fall and transfer them to individual small pots in spring. Let them grow on in these pots for a season and then plant them in the ground.
You’re not likely to find seeds of partridge berry offered for sale. Dried seeds are unlikely to germinate at all, and fresh ones aren’t easy to grow. For best results, mash fresh, ripe berries in fall, pick out and clean the gray wrinkled seeds, and sow them immediately. Some may germinate the following spring while others may take another year to sprout.
To make a terrarium, choose a clear glass container with a glass or plastic lid. Place a piece of moss upside down on the bottom as an attractive liner. Cover it with a small amount of moist woodland soil or a mixture of equal parts sand, peat moss, and loam. Set the roots of a partridge berry plant in the soil. Add a few other plants if you like, but don’t overcrowd the container. Cover any exposed soil with bits of moss or small stones. Wipe any soil off the walls of the container and put on the lid. Place it where it will get indirect light, but keep it out of the sun—you don’t want to cook the plants. If the inside of the glass becomes covered with water droplets, take the lid off for a few hours to let the terrarium dry out a bit. When the water balance is right, the terrarium needs little attention.
• Forestfarm, 900 Tetherow Rd., Williams, OR 97544; (541) 846-7269; www.forestfarm.com. Catalog $5. Plants.
• Gardens of the Blue Ridge, Inc. PO Box 10, Pineola, NC 28662; (828) 733-2417; Catalog $3. Plants.
• Niche Gardens, 1111 Dawson Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27516; (919) 967-0078; www.nichegdn.com. Catalog $3. Plants.
• Roslyn Nursery, 211 Burrs Ln., Dix Hills, NY 11746; (631) 643-9347; www.roslynnursery.com. Catalog $3. Plants.