Herb to Know: Partridge Berry

| August/September 2001

Genus: Mitchella repens
Pronunciation: (Mih-CHELL-uh REE-penz)
Family: Rubiaceae

• 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.

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