Partridge-berry (Mitchella repens) is a low growing (4 inches tall or so) evergreen ground cover in the Rubiaceae, or Madder, family. It grows in woodland conditions, usually on slopes or along the base of trees where there is less leaf accumulation to cover the opposite-leaved foliage. It is not a fast grower nor aggressive, but the light stripe on each leaf, evergreen nature, and ability to take the shade makes it a worthwhile consideration for gardens. Since it can root where it touches the ground (adventitious rooting), it can form patches 2-3' around and cuttings transplant fairly well. It is also sometimes used in terrariums but does not do well if the leaves get covered over. Partridge-berry ranges from Canada as far South as Guatemala. It has been used as an evergreen Christmas decoration, but it is now not as common as it once was due its slow reproductive rate and growth.
The scientific name, Mitchella, was given to it by Linnaeus in honor of his friend John Mitchell, a Virginia doctor, mapmaker, and botanist. The species name "repens" means "creeping" and refers to its spreading, non-climbing nature. It has numerous common names which will be discussed in more detail below.
Partridge-berry has been used medicinally and in other ways for quite a long time. Its use by women in particular of various indigenous tribes has led to many other common names: Squawvine, Squawberry, and Squawplum for example. It had numerous other uses as well, according to noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman.
The Abnaki applied it as a poultice to treat rheumatism, while the Montagnais thought the berries could treat fever. The Seminole used it for ailments of the kidneys. The Lenape (Delaware) used it for menstrual treatments, stiff joints, and muscle swellings. The Cherokee had multitudes of uses for this plant. It was used for dysentery and hives, but women had many more applications: for menstrual cramps, sore nipples, to facilitate child birth, and was given to babies prior to breastfeeding.
But it was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) who had the most uses for it. Partridge-berry was used to treat back pains, bleeding, fevers, cuts, typhoid, insomnia, stomach gas, as a blood purifier, and for urinary pains. It was believed to help babies suckle, treat kids vomiting, convulsions, children's rashes, and help prevent rickets. Women thought it could treat labor pains, venereal diseases, troubles with the womb, help babies suckle, and even as a love potion.
The berries are considered edible, but are rather bland. Though used for travel cakes, as a colorful garnish for salads, and emergency food, they were not a favored food. The same could be said for animals who also do not prefer them. There is so little demand that they can stay on the plant uneaten even into the following year when the plant re-blooms. Though called Partridge-berry and Deerberry, they are not favorites of them, though will be eaten. Additional names include Running Fox, Tea-berry, and Running Box.
Partridge-berry flowers and fruits are unique. Each white, tubular flower has 4 petals and is fragrant. Two flowers together are joined at their base. These double flowers typically bloom around June and are self-incompatible. They each need to be pollinated by different flowers than each other, usually by bumblebees. If both get pollinated, then they grow an interesting fruit that is formed when they join together. You end up with a double fruit fused to form one. These are botanically called drupes, and the unique arrangement gives the plant many other common names: Twinberry, Twinflower, Oneberry, and Two-eyed Berry for examples.
|The fused fruit of Two-eyed Berry|
In some mountain communities, newly wed couples were given either the double flowers or fruits as traditional wedding gifts. These would symbolize the joined couple now forming one union, much as the flowers or fruits had joined. What a wonderful tradition and homage to this plant that has so many names and traditional uses. No wonder the Virginia Native Plant Society named it their Wildflower of the Year in 2012. I like this plant so much that I have a small cutting that I've transplanted into my own shaded yard. It has not bloomed for me yet, but on cold winter days when much of the rest of the landscape is bare, I at least have this little evergreen plant to remind me of greener times to come.