By Hal & Laura Mahan
We were hiking recently and noticed many beautiful, little trailing evergreen vines called partridge berry, with paired, dark green, rounded leaves and bright red berries, making it a popular holiday decoration. This little plant covers the forest floor in some places, clinging close to the ground. Occasionally, you can see it nestled in a bed of beautiful moss.
When you delve deeper into the story of a wild species, you become scientist, historian, herbalist and poet all at the same time. The name of the species gives an introduction and opens the door to a deeper acquaintance.
Partridge berry has been assigned the Latin name of Mitchella repens. “Repens” means creeping, a word to describe its trailing growth habit. What about “Mitchella”? Mitchella repens was named by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of the rule of using two words in Latin for naming organisms.
The history lesson is revealed here. Linnaeus honored his friend John Mitchell (1711-1768), an English physician who lived in Virginia for a time. Mitchell apparently spent his spare time learning natural history and making maps, for he created the largest 18th-century map of the eastern US. This 1755 map, known as the Mitchell Map, was used to define the boundaries of the North American colonies, becoming an important political tool at that time.
The little plant with bright red berries was dubbed “partridge berry” because birds such as grouse eat its fruits. Another common name is squaw vine, referring to the use of the plant as a remedy to promote easy childbirth.
In late spring, partridge berry blooms with a pair of beautiful white funnel-shaped flowers, each with four petals. If both flowers are pollinated, the resulting fruits fuse to form a single, beautiful red berry. Look closely and you can see two bright red spots on the berry, the remnants of the two flowers. These berries are edible, but not particularly tasty.
Study the plant more closely. Does the flower shape remind you of any other wildflower? How about the common spring flower known as the bluet? Partridge berry and bluets are classified in the same family, the Rubiaceae or madder family, which also includes coffee!
The berries last through the winter if not eaten by birds or small mammals, making partridge berry a soughtafter indoor plant for a winter garden (terrarium) in a fish bowl or aquarium. Place some small stones on the bottom of the container. Cover with an inch or so of soil that you collect from the forest floor. Add some mosses and small ferns, partridge berry and, perhaps, some pieces of wood and interesting rocks. Be careful after your container is finished that you do not add too much water. You can experiment with keeping your terrarium covered to see how much moisture collects on the glass. Uncover to let it dry out a bit if it gets too wet.
One year in our terrarium a small white mushroom sprang up from a piece of wood. It was fascinating to watch its growth from tiny button to mushroom in the space of two or three days. There is always something captivating and beautiful to admire and learn about nature!
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.