Partridgeberry: A Steppable Groundcover
Mitchella repens goes by such common names as partridgeberry, squaw berry, two-eyed berry, twinberry and running fox. The genus name, Mitchella is in honor of an 18th century botanist, Dr. John Mitchell, and the species name "repens" means creeping.
Partridgeberry can be found throughout the eastern United States all the way from Newfoundland down to central Florida and westward to eastern Texas. It occurs naturally in woods and along creek or river banks, mostly on sandy slopes, but it can also be found in dry or wet woodland sites.
Partridgeberry keeps to its place, prostrate on the ground. It does not climb, and it grows a mere quarter-inch tall and spreads outward on creeping stems about 6 to 12 inches long. Evergreen foliage is glossy and dark green with a pale yellow midrib. The half-inch oval- to heart-shaped leaves are borne oppositely along the stems on short petioles.
In late spring, two white, half-inch, tubular flowers bloom in pairs inside one calyx. Interestingly, both flowers have one pistil and four stamens, but they are different in very basic ways. The pistil in one of the flowers is short and the stamens are long; in the other flower the pistil is long and the stamens are short. Because of this, neither flower can pollinate itself, so cross pollination is necessary in order to produce a single berry. Close inspection of the berry will reveal two bright red spots at the bottom evidencing that the ovaries of the two flowers fused to produce a single berry.
Plant partridgeberry about one foot apart in well-drained but moist soil. As with most plants, keep thoroughly watered until it is well established. After that, no supplemental irrigation is needed except in droughty conditions. If leaves show obvious signs of wilt, irrigation may keep it looking its best.
This native plant is frequently used as an ornamental groundcover. As a groundcover, it tolerates minimal foot traffic and hugs the ground so closely that mowing has no effect on it. Because of its diminutive size and lack of aggressiveness, many gardeners choose to grow partridgeberry in small, prominent areas where its interesting foliage, flowers, and fruit can be best admired. Appropriate places are in shady woodland gardens and at the edges of ponds or streams.
Berries are oval and about one-half an inch in diameter. The fruit is edible and is sometimes collected and made into jam. It provides a source of food for partridges, ruffed grouse, turkey, and other game birds. Small animals such as skunks and white-footed mice claim their share of the berries, and many insects and small creatures live underneath and within its matted branches. Although partridgeberry is widely distributed, be very careful about removing plants from their native habitat. Plants are becoming harder to find in some areas of their range, and in Iowa they are threatened.
The common name, squaw vine, comes from the fact that the American Indians used the plant during the final weeks of pregnancy to ease childbirth. A lotion made from the leaves was applied to breasts to relieve soreness. English colonists made a tea that was used as an aid in childbirth and to relieve menstrual cramps.
Partridgeberry can be started from division of established clumps. If you know of a native stand or have a friend who has it, ask for a few stems. Adventitious roots at the node of each leaf enable new cuttings to establish quickly.
Starting new plant from seeds is also possible, though it is infrequently done. Berries require stratification at about 40°F. Inside a refrigerator is ideal. After a three-month stratification, remove pulp from the seeds and sow them in damp sand. Pot seedlings up when they are large enough to handle. Add them to your landscape the following spring.
At a Glance
Scientific name: Mitchella repens
Pronunciation: my-CHELL-uh REE-penz
Family: Rubiaceae (Madder family)
Common names: partridgeberry, deer berry, checkerberry, squaw vine, squawberry
Origin: US native
Water use zone: Moderate
Size: ground-hugging and spreading to 1 foot wide
Soil: Light, sandy to loamy, moist, well-drained, acid to neutral
Salt tolerance: Slight