The Partridge Berry, Mitchella repens, is very common in the Tantrough and Johnson’s Branch forested areas. The plant is a small, delicate evergreen vine trailing on moist or dry sandy soil, universally in shaded portions, growing on trailside slopes, around the base of trees and rotting stumps. Mitchella has the distinction of being listed in both the Woody Plants of Maryland and Herbaceous Plants of Maryland, the comprehensive volumes by Brown and Brown. The little vine never attempts to climb even over fallen leaves, often rooting at the stem nodes. Quite often it grows in association with various mosses, such as hair-cap, ostrich plume and pyxie cup lichen. Sometimes, it is found growing in the shaded portions of an unkempt lawn, like mine. Personally, I never remove it; I just enjoy its beauty, preferring it to boring, high maintenance lawn grass. It has darker green foliage than a highly fertilized lawn, has novel flowers and fruit, plus, it never needs mowing. Maybe a small feature area could be monocultured to show it off? Hmmm, I must try that.
I have always loved this diminutive vine; it was one of the first plants I learned about from my mother as we walked the forest searching for blue berries (Vaccinium corymbosum) and huckleberries (Gaylussacia baccata). One of her local names for the plant was “cat’s eye berry”. We would pick one up and examine it to be sure that it had the required two “eyes”, affirming that indeed it was the berry in question.
They can be tasted but are quite the epitome of tastelessness being absolutely, positively bland, with no taste. Each fruit, about the size of a small pea, is vivid scarlet and reveals two unique blossom end scars. This amazing feature is the result of quite a strange floral arrangement. For every flower consists of not one, but two corollas (the colorful part of a flower) united on two fused ovaries, joined in Siamese twin fashion. There may be many examples of this in the floral world, however, I’m not aware of them. The four petaled, fragrant, snow white flowers, often tinged with pink, appear in mid-May.
The fruits don’t really become noticeable until late summer into fall: that is, unless you are one of my color blind friends who cannot distinguish the bright scarlet berries against the forest green leaves. Sadly by mid-winter the fruits have largely disappeared being an important food for songbirds, squirrels and woodland mice (Peromyscus leucopus). Still later after the berries appear to be completely gone, a few can usually be discovered by gently brushing aside the freshly fallen leaves to reveal a few secretly hiding out of sight.
The little partridge berry will grow happily in a terrarium with other small plants, mosses, spleenwort ferns, reindeer moss, or seedling evergreens. However they are best seen in their natural setting. Never collect any plants from public land; instead leave them for others to enjoy. It is easily found on all of the tracts of the Milford Millponds Nature Preserve. As you hike or jog the trails, keep your eyes open and you will certainly find this beautiful plant. Hopefully, now you will have a new insight into this charming little attraction.
P.S. Take as many photographs as you wish!
Partridge Berry on the forest floor - Can you spot the toad?