During the part of the year when the trees lose their leaves, we can find surprises that have been present all along, revealed to our eyes. We see the big things quickly, like rhododendron or holly along the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Loop Trail. Smaller plants are spotted soon thereafter. There is a tiny ground cover that is evergreen and easily overlooked during the spring, summer and fall when we are distracted by more showy plants. It is the Partridgeberry and it is definitely worth noticing.
In nature, the partridgeberry can be found growing along the floor of the forest throughout eastern North America. It hides in the full shade of mixed deciduous woods, preferring acidic soils. It grows in nooks and crannies between rocks and fallen trees. Not many plants can survive in the darkness of a forest floor. Not enough sunlight is received at ground level. The shade caused by the leaves of all the other plants and trees above block the sun. So how does the partridgeberry survive? I have found it in places that are almost completely devoid of any sunlight. Its secret is that it keeps its leaves all year round. It is able to take advantage of the sunlight that reaches the forest floor during the late fall and throughout the winter into the early spring.
This groundcover only grows about two inches off the ground. As the stems grow each intersection of the branch and leaf grows little roots that help anchor it into the soil. It spreads slowly but surely across the ground, forming a solid green ground cover that is just beautiful. It tends to favor growing on sloping ground and at the bases of trees. The advantage for the plant is that when the leaves fall in autumn they slide or blow down the slope and don’t smother the low growing partridgeberry.
The best time to notice this plant is right now, in late autumn through the winter months. If you see a ground cover with tiny green leaves that are paired, each leaf with a white vein down its center, you have found it. In the late spring the partridgeberry produces pure white flowers that have a faint fragrance. The flowers grow along the stems in pairs, just like the leaves. Sometimes the plant produces flowers in the fall also. Once the flowers are fertilized the two flowers’ ovaries fuse and grow into a single small bright Christmas red berry with two small dots on it. I have been shown by my friend Ila Hatter that the berry looks like a little face with two eyes peering up at you. Each berry contains eight seeds.
The berries often stay on the plant through the winter and sometimes they remain present when the next years flowers appear, which is really unusual for any plant. The berries are good food for ruffed grouse, raccoons, deer and red fox. Partridgeberry doesn’t produce a lot of flowers and berries. You would never see the groundcover a solid mass of white or red. They both spring up sporadically on the plant.
Other names for Partridgeberry are Deerberry, Running fox, Two-eyed Berry and Squawberry or Squaw vine. Native American herbology suggests that the berry was used to help pregnant women strengthen their body for childbirth.
Although this groundcover grows very slowly it really is an excellent one to try in your garden in an area that receives very little light. If it likes where you have placed it you will be rewarded with a beautiful groundcover covered with little two-eyed berries peering up at you each year.