Partridgeberry: A native evergreen ground cover

Partridgeberry is a low-growing evergreen plant in the eastern US that produces interesting red berries and spreads into a nice ground cover.

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    Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is an evergreen ground cover with attractive white flowers in spring and colorful red berries in fall and winter. It's also a native plant.
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Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) recently came into full bloom here in southern Indiana.

Partridgeberry has white, flaring, trumpet-shaped flowers that are one-half inch long, fuzzy inside and fragrant. The flowers are scattered along individual stems, always in pairs, joined at the base like Siamese twins where a single ovary is shared.

Thus, it takes two flowers to produce a single berry. Each bright-red berry will have two small "eyes," "bumps," or "bellybuttons" from where the corollas were joined.

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Come late summer and lasting into winter, the bright red of the berries is quite showy against the green foliage. This is especially true when berries last over into the next flowering season. There will then be white twin blooms accompanied by red berries against the green mat.

A native woodland plant

Without a doubt, partridgeberry is among our most interesting of native woodland plants. It's a diminutive, ground-hugging vine that forms a dense evergreen mat produced by rooting stems.

Each tiny leaf is opposite along the stem, rounded-ovate in outline. Individual leaves are from one-third inch to two-thirds (6 to 18 mm) in length.

Color is a deep, rich, spring-green with white along the midrib and veins. Partridgeberry can usually be found forming small carpets on embankments and hummocks in the wood. Preferred locations, such as raised areas, the base of mature trees, would be to keep accumulating leaf litter from smothering the tiny foliage. Soil is usually acidic.

The sheer number of common names for this member of the Madder family attests to the popularity of partridgeberry.

  • Deerberry and partridgeberry say something of its popularity with local wildlife as a food source.
  • Checkerberry refers to the bright red berries over the green foliage.
  • Twinflower aptly describes the flowering habit.

In all, I am aware of more than 30 common names for this widely distributed and well-loved creeper.

Performs well in Zone 6

It's not easy being an evergreen ground cover in southern Indiana.

We seldom have reliable snow cover during winter months to protect foliage. I live and garden in Zone 6, but Zone 5 weather is certainly no stranger to our gardens.

The soil freezes solid, and winter winds whistle through, sucking moisture from foliage leaving brown blotches in its wake. Shortly after freezing, the soil then thaws, only to freeze once more in continuous cycles, heaving all but the best established and tenacious of root systems.

But our native woodland wonder, partridgeberry always comes through unscathed, remaining a deep, lustrous, green.

In my garden, partridgeberry flows along the edge or a raised bed, spilling over a cedar log. Deciduous azalea forms the background.

In early spring, several species of troutlilies (Erythronium) push through the green mat to display spotted foliage and nodding, one-to-the-stem blooms. Three species of trillium form mottled umbrellas above the waxy-green leaves of partridgeberry. As you can imagine, it's lovely.

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Gene Bush, a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer, and nursery owner, gardens on a shaded hillside in southern Indiana. His website is www.munchkinnursery.com. He also writes the Garden Clippin's Newsletter. To read more by Gene here at Diggin' It, click here.

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