I don’t like to play favorites. I can’t tell you my favorite food or make of car or anything like that. Often favorite is a function of context. Still, if I had to choose a favorite wildflower, partidgeberry (Mitchella repens, Rubiaceae) would be a strong contender.
So on May 16, when I went to Carderock with the one goal of photographing mountain laurel in bloom, I decided to go first to the place I call at Partridgeberry Rock. Just in case. Because everything has been blooming early this year.
And so it was with partridgeberry. It was blooming at least a week earlier then I’d ever seen it bloom in past years. My mountain laurel photoshoot was on hold for at least an hour while I got out the tripod and macro lens for this tiny plant.
Partridgeberry can be described as an evergreen perennial or even an evergreen subshrub, since the stems of mature plants do lignify (turn woody) to some extent. And the plants can grow a foot or more long. (It’s a little hard to say how long an individual plant can get, since they will root at the nodes to form new plants.) However, they don’t grow taller than about two inches. They just trail along over the ground and rocks. The dark, glossy leaves measure about half an inch across.
The plants always flower in pairs, usually at the ends of them stems, but sometimes in the leaf axils as well. The dark pink buds open to reveal hairy white flowers, the four petals fusing to form a single tube with four flaring lobes. (In this particular stand several of the flowers were five-lobed.) The petals aren’t the only things that fuse: once both flowers of a pair are pollinated, their ovaries fuse to form a single fruit, which despite the common name is not a berry. It’s a drupe (stone fruit, like peach and cherry). The drupe is oval-shaped and has two dark spots on it, like little eyes.
Partridgeberry ranges from eastern Texas to Florida and Maine, and north into Minnesota (although it’s almost missing from a few of the mid-west states). It’s threatened in Iowa. The Maryland Biodiversity Project now has records for it in every county in Maryland.