If you find yourself walking through open hemlock or pine woods, there is a good chance that you will come upon a small, woody, evergreen vine with shiny, bright green leaves—Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens). It has almost finished blooming now. But it is still possible to find both last year’s persistent bright red fruits and this year’s white flowers at the same time.
The 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus first described Partridge Berry, one of many North American species he named. Its species name, repens, means “creeping,” an apt description. This is a non-climbing vine no more than 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) tall and 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) long. Partridge Berry is in the Rubiaceae family, which includes coffee, bedstraw, and madder.
The small, trumpet-shaped, pubescent, bright white flowers of the Partridge Berry are most fascinating. They are always produced in pairs, with both flowers arising from one calyx. On each fragrant flower there are four white petals, one pistil, and four stamens. The flower arrangement, however, is different on each plant. One plant can have flowers with a short pistil and long stamens, called the thrum form. Another plant can have a long pistil and short stamens, called a pin form. This prevents self-fertilization and encourages cross-pollination. These plants are often pollinated by bumblebees. When both flowers are fertilized the ovaries fuse to form a bright red, oblong fruit. You can see two dimples on the fruit where the ovaries are fused.
The fruits are eaten by partridges (better known as Ruffed Grouse [Bonasa umbellus]), wild turkeys, mice, foxes, and skunks. I find it interesting that this plant is named for a bird now uncommon in Connecticut. This is partly due to changes in our forests. Although our state is 60% forested, these lands are largely made up of mature trees. Ruffed Grouse likes secondary successional habitats—diverse environments with shrubby areas, trees of different ages, and forest openings.
Partridge Berry makes a great, evergreen groundcover under trees in your garden. Of course, never collect plants from the wild. It is best to get them from a local native plant nursery or from friends. It is relatively easy plant to propagate from one-year-old cuttings or by division. Then, come winter, go and check out the enticing flash of green and red on gray, cold days.