Monday, January 2, 2012

Plants with Winter Interest - Part 1 Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens)

Partridge Berry in the Eckhart/Parisien Woods at Monte Vista
At the Garden Tour this fall, during the after tour party, Barb Petrucci noticed this groundcover growing under a Norway Spruce tree and asked what it was (and where can she get it).  Linda Secrist confirmed that it's a native, evergreen groundcover called Partridge Berry, or Mitchella repens.  According to the U.S. Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers website, the "... genus name Mitchella was given to this plant by Linnaeus for his friend John Mitchell, a physician who developed a method of treating yellow fever. The species name repens refers to its trailing or creeping habit." 

Partridge Berry in the Eckhart/Parisien Woods at Monte Vista

The plant is dimorphous, meaning "occurring in two forms":
In late spring, two beautiful white flowers (with one calyx) each open their four petals to entice insects to collect their nectar. Each blossom has one pistil and four stamens. The pistil in one is short and the stamens are long. In the other it is just the opposite. ... Because of this no flower can fertilize itself--all flowers must be cross-pollinated by insects, and both flowers must be pollinated to get a single healthy berry. A berry will stay on the vine until after the blooms appear in the spring unless a hungry bird finds it nestled among the fallen winter leaves.
Did you catch that?  The twin flowers produce, together, only one berry.  If you look closely at the first picture, you can see two "eyes" as residual evidence of the fusion.  The berry is edible, and persists through the winter, assuming it is not consumed by "ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, sharp-tailed grouse, and prairie chicken. The fruit is also frequently eaten by raccoons and red fox" and it has been reported that "partridgeberry made up 2.9 to 3.4 percent (dry weight) of the summer and fall diets of white-tailed deer."

Back to the Forest Service article:
Some gardeners consider Partridge Berry a must for winter gardens. During the cold days of late winter Partridge Berry is a treat to the eyes with its deep, dark-green leaves and occasional scarlet berries. In a garden setting this evergreen prefers shade, accepting the morning sun. Partridge Berry is extremely difficult to propagate from seed. The best way to introduce this native into your garden is through 1 year old cuttings or by division. In the garden situation they will form a thick, substantial ground cover. Once established they are relatively trouble free with the only required maintenance of keeping garden debris from covering the mats. As always, do not wild collect plants from public lands and only from private lands when the landowner grants permission. Partridge Berry is a commonly available plant from native plant nurseries especially those who specialize in woodland plants.

I also love the symmetrical variegation in the evergreen leaves, a bright, light yellow line bisecting each leaf, and the delicate, less visible veins.  It's a great alternative to Vinca, an introduced species from Europe that appears on invasive species lists.

A Google search revealed many potential on-line sources for buying Partridge Berry plants, or check with a local nursery, or independent gardening center in the native plant section:

Amazon, TN Tree Nursery (Wholesale - minimum 100 Plants), Barry Glick's Sunshine Farm and Gardens, Mulberry Woods Nursery, Hillis Nursery (Wholesale - minimum 25 plants), Munchkin Nursery, and Heartwood Nursery.

More here.

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