This year’s flowers, last year’s berries
Last summer while I was walking along the creek below our home, small splotches of red and white at the base of a large hemlock caught my attention. Upon inspection, these proved to be the flowers (white) and fruit (red) of the dainty partridge berry vine. Few other plants display this year’s flowers and last year’s berries at the same time.
Partridge berry (Mitchella repens) has several other common names, including squawvine, twin-berry, two-eyed berry, Mitchella vine, and nerve vine, all descriptive of the plant’s botanical characteristics or human uses. The genus designation honors the eighteenth century Virginia physician and botanist John Mitchell, while the species tag “repens” notes its “creeping” habit.
Indeed, this very common little vine can spread over fairly large areas, carpeting roots, small rock outcrops, and fallen tree trunks. Even in winter, the paired dark-green oval leaves with their yellowish-green veins make a pleasant sight.
In May and June attractive four-lobed lilac-scented white flowers appear whose interiors are clothed with velvety white hairs. In order to insure adequate cross-fertilization by pollinating insects, some of the flowers have protruding stamens and a recessed pistil while others offer the reverse situation.
Look closely and you’ll see that the flowers appear in pairs with fused bases so that the ovaries produce a double berry; that is, one berry composed of two parts. They look luscious, but are seedy and dry tasting to most humans. On the other hand, grouse, partridge, voles and other ground-feeding animals think they taste just fine, seek them out for nourishment, and spread the seeds. Those not eaten remain in good shape on the vine well into the following year’s flowering season.
For those interested, as I am, in the reputed medicinal uses of various native plants, a recent book by north Georgia herbalist Patricia Kyritsi Howell titled Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians (Mountain City, Ga., BotanoLogus Books, 2006) will be of interest. Partridge berry is one of 45 plants she considers in detail.
Howell notes that the plant was initially utilized by the “American Indians as a remedy for a wide range of female reproductive system problems” and that to this day it is “an important gynecological remedy in modern herbal practice” being “considered a reliable tonic to treat … symptoms such as infertility, lack of menses, menstrual pain, and threatened miscarriage.”
According to Howell, the above ground portions of the fresh or dried vine can be prepared as either a tincture (by steeping in a combination of alcohol and water) or as a decoction (an herbal extract made by boiling or simmering in water). She provides detailed proportions as well as recommended dosages for each of the preparations.
The American partridge berry is a member of the group of plants sometimes referred to as “The Asian Connection,” that is, it’s one of the numerous Southern Appalachian plants — persimmon, mayapple, shortia, umbrella leaf, ginseng, tulip poplar, sweet gum, etc. — whose nearest relatives are primarily found in eastern Asia and not in the intervening regions.
The common method of propagation is vegetative through division of the roots. Information on breeding from seed is scant.