Partridge Berry

3 November 2012

This is my first entry in a blog dedicated to increasing the number of native plants in home gardens or landscapes. 

Natural range: From Canada to Texas throughout the eastern U.S. headed west to Oklahoma.

Biocultural value: Winter food source for terrestrial birds, small mammals and occasionally humans. Many different Native American tribes used the plant as medicine, particularly for pregnant women.

How to use: This interesting little ground cover is incredibly easy to spread with small rooted sections. Plant this in a natural container (tree trunk created from harvest or from natural fall). As the trunk rots away, the vine will creep out of the container, eventually returning to the ground as the trunk finalizes its decay. OR plant among other natives within your garden beds.

Tips for growing: If you don't have this plant on your property, buy your first start from a native nursery. See my ideas about where to find those here. The plant typically grows under forest cover, so mimic these low light conditions in your garden. The plant has a fairly wide tolerance of wet/dry conditions, though you may have to pay attention when you first plant.

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Partridge Berry     Mitchella repens L.     Rubiaceae

This lovely low growing member of the madder family was named by Linnaeus (hence the L. authority after the scientific binomial) in honor of his friend John Mitchell. The specific epithet, repens, is a reference to the 'creeping' nature of the vine. 

From a botanical perspective, the heart shaped fruit arises because of the fusion of two ovaries. The two separate, trumpet-shaped flowers are paired up by their ovaries, resulting in a single, bright red berry. The species may trend toward dioecy (male flowers on one plant, females on another), but controls outcrossing with its distylous arrangement. This is a strategy to increase outcrossing, achieved by having two morphs of the flowers (usually one morph on a single plant). The morphs are either "pin" with short stamens and long pistils OR "thrum" with long stamens and short pistils. The pollen from a flower of one morph cannot fertilize another flower of the same morph (heteromorphic self incompatability).  The plant attracts bees by nectar rewards supplied by different flowers at different stages of growth. Scattering the stages of nectar availability this way may increase the likelihood that flowers are pollinated, since bees must travel further for rewards. The flowers are mostly pollinated by native bumblebees  (Bombus vagans, B. impatiens).

Hicks, D.J. Wyatt, R., Meagher, T.R. 1985. Reproductive Biology of Distylous Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens. American Journal of Botany. 72(10):1503-1514.

© Karen C. Hall, 2010