Mitchella repens


Partridgeberry, photographed at Tomoka State Park, Ormond Beach, Volusia County, in March 2019.

Partridgeberry, Mitchella repens, is a plant with a low profile both figuratively and literally, especially in South Florida. It’s rare here and it’s a creeper, seldom elevating more than a few inches off the ground.

But it does have one eye-catching feature: unusual flowers. What’s unusual about them isn’t their size, shape or color, which are all rather unremarkable. Rather, it’s their structure and how they produce fruit. The flowers come in pairs, and it takes both of them to produce one berry (technically called a drupe).

Partridgeberry is so rare here that the Institute for Regional Conservation considers it critically imperiled within South Florida. It’s only found in Martin County, according to distribution maps, and within Martin County, the IRC has verified its presence in only two parks. It is more commonly found in the central and northern portions of the Peninsula and in the Panhandle.

Partridgeberry’s native range extends over much of the eastern United States and Canada, and as far west as Texas and Oklahoma.

It literally has a low profile, usually climbing to no more than six inches to a foot off the ground. The leaves are about an inch long, simple, dark-green, oval-shaped, with a prominent greenish-white central vein. They’re leathery, smooth to the touch and are aligned opposite each along the stem. The edges are “entire,” meaning there are no lobes or teeth.

Partridgeberry features small white flowers which give way to small, scarlet fruit. Both the fruit and the leaves stay on the plant through winter, and the combination makes partridgeberry popular as a ground cover in northern parts of its range.

As we noted above, the flower come in pairs — one of common names we’ve seen for the plant is twinflower. The flowers are generally white but can have some pink or purple tones as well. Each has four petals, and they’re covered with hairs. Each has a long tube, relative to its size, that connects to ovaries — the seed-producing part — that are fused together. The calix, or outer part of the flowers, is fused as well.

In order to produce a single fruit, both flowers have to be fertilized, but the internal structures of each are different from the other in such a way that prevents one from pollinating the other. The fruit goes from green to scarlet red when ripe, with two black dots on the bottom, the remnants of the two flowers. Each berry has eight seeds.

The berries are fleshy and edible but devoid of taste. A few birds eat them, notably ruffed grouse and northern bobwhite, as do foxes, skunks and deer. The fact that the fruit can persist on the plant through winter increases their importance as a source of food for wildlife.

Partridgeberry is a perennial, takes to dry or wet places and likes acidic soil. In dry habitats, it needs shade to keep from drying out. It has rhizomes, or stem-like roots, that send out new shoots and allows it to form moderately dense patches. The plant also roots in places where the stem comes in contact with the soil.

Native Americans ate the fruit, but partridgeberry was far more important medicinally. The Abnaki, Iroquois, Delaware and Cherokee used it in various forms as a gynecological aid, to prevent rickets (vitamin D deficiency) in infants, to break fevers, stop bleeding, treat aches and pains, rashes, hemorrhoids, gas and stomach aches. It was also used as a sleep aid. It’s still used by herbalists, but there appears to be scant scientific evidence for its effectiveness in treating anything.

The great Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, creator of the binomial, or scientific, naming system christened partridgeberry Mitchella repens. Mitchella honors John Mitchell, a friend of Linnaeus, while repens refers to the plant’s creeping habit.

Other common names include twinberry, running boy and pigeon plum, not to be confused with the tree of the same name.

Partridgeberry is a member of Rubiaceae, the coffee family.

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.