Foraged Gardening

Partridge berries (Mitchella repens) – How to ID, eat & grow

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Partridge berries (Mitchella repens) are a common woodland shade plant in the eastern half of North America that produces bright red berries. In this article, you’ll find out how to identify, eat, and grow them!


Partridge berries – small red forest floor berries you’ve probably seen on hikes

We live in Upstate South Carolina at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. Our area is a premier hiking destination, a feature we regularly take advantage of.

On most hikes in mature mixed or hardwood forests, we inevitably encounter small mats of vining plants growing on the forest floor that feature vibrant red berries. These are partridge berries (Mitchella repens), and once you know to be on the lookout for them, you’ll probably start to notice them too.  

Our toddler foraging for partridge berries on a cold winter hike.

Our toddler foraging for partridge berries on a cold winter hike.

Are there other names for partridge berries? 

Partridge berries go by other common names in different regions of the country, including:

  • deer berry,
  • squaw berry (a derogatory name which should be avoided), 
  • twin berry, and
  • two-eyed berry.

Are partridge berries edible?

Yes, partridge berries are edible. They have a somewhat pithy consistency and a bland flavor with mild hints of wintergreen. We certainly wouldn’t put them in our “favorite fruit” category. 

We’ve eaten partridge berries from multiple locations in every season of the year and have detected mild differences in fruit quality. Generally, it seems like late winter is when the fruit is sweetest, although they’re still not strongly flavored at that point. 

Despite our seemingly lusterless description of partridge berries, our toddler LOVES foraging and eating them — and they’re perfectly safe for children to eat. Sometimes, our family hikes become excruciating because he refuses to leave a partridge berry patch until he’s cleared it of berries. 

How to identify partridge berries

Now, before you or your toddler go feasting on foraged partridge berries, it’s important to know how to definitively ID them.

Here are 5 keys to identifying partridge berries:

1. Location – Partridge berry plants are native to the eastern half of North America. If you draw a line on a map from Texas straight up into northern Canada, partridge berry’s native range would be everywhere on the east/right side of that dividing line. Within that range, partridge berries grow in part- to full-shade in mature forests.   

2. Growth habit – Partridge berry plants are small, crawling vines with roots that form at nodes where the vines touch the ground. 

3. Leaves – Partridge berry plants are evergreen, featuring small 1/2″ long ovate leaves with light-colored yellow/white/green midribs.

4. Flowers – In spring (April-early June where we live), partridge berry plants produce pairs of small, trumpet-shaped, vibrant white flowers with four fuzzy petals per flower. Though small, the flowers have a very pleasant fragrance.

Each flower in the pair has a distinct form: one features a short pistil and long stamen while the other features a long pistil and short stamen. This dimorphic structure prevents self-fertilization AND leads to the single easiest way to identify a partridge berry… the fruit. 

5. Fruit – Partridge berry fruits ripen from green to vibrant red. They’re quite small – about the size of a holly berry.

Due to their unique flower structure, each berry is actually two fused/conjoined ovaries resulting from the flower pair being pollinated. This in turn leads to the two distinctive red “eyes” evident on the surface of each berry, which distinguishes partridge berries from any other lookalikes. 

A closer look at the flowers, fruit, and leaves of the partridge berry plant. Note the two "eyes" on the fruit, which is the result of the flower pair being pollinated and forming two fused/conjoined ovaries.

A closer look at the small white flower pairs, fruit, and leaves of the partridge berry plant. Note the two “eyes” on the fruit, which is the result of the flower pair being pollinated and forming two fused/conjoined ovaries. You can also see the immature green fruit developing.  

When are partridge berries ripe?

In the southeast, partridge berries are ripe virtually all year long. In fact, we’ve found and eaten ripe partridge berries every month of the year.

However, they’re far more abundant in the fall through winter and least abundant in late spring through mid-summer.  

What eats partridge berries? 

Small mammals (example: chipmunks and mice) and birds (example: turkeys and quail) are the primary consumers of partridge berries. Our toddler is vying for inclusion in this list as well. 

Our toddler clearing fruit from a partridge berry patch in March.

Our toddler clearing fruit from a partridge berry patch in March.

Are there any POISONOUS lookalikes to partridge berries? 

There are no poisonous partridge berry lookalikes that meet our five-point identification checklist above.

For instance, a novice forager could confuse mildly poisonous holly berries that fell off of the trees/bushes onto the ground, but individual holly berries don’t have the two “eyes” on the surface of the fruit nor is the growth habit, leaf structure, or flower structure of the two species remotely similar.  

Partridge berry EDIBLE lookalikes

Are partridge berries the same things as tea berries or lingonberries? No.

Two other common, native woodland berries that look similar to partridgeberries and have some range overlap are:

1. Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)

Lingonberries are edible berries native to Canada and a few northern US states. Confusingly, another common name for lingonberries is partridgeberry.

A potted lingonberry (without berries) that we're going to attempt to grow in part shade in our garden. Notice the upright growth habit, which is much different than the crawling/vining growth habit of partridge berries.

A potted lingonberry (without berries) that we’re going to attempt to grow in part shade in our garden. Notice the upright growth habit, which is much different than the crawling/vining growth habit of partridge berries.

However, lingonberries are a different species than the partridgeberries (Mitchella repens) that are the subject of this article. Lingonberries are dwarf shrubs (that run to form colonies) with an upright growth habit, whereas partridgeberries are more of a small vining ground cover.   

2. Eastern teaberry, aka American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)

Another edible berry that is sometimes confused with partridgeberries is Eastern teaberry. Teaberry is a low, mounding bush whose red berries have a mild wintergreen flavor similar to partridgeberries.  

Teaberry is also native to the eastern US and Canada. 

There are a few other edible wild red berries in the northern US and Canada that look somewhat similar to partridge berries. Examples: wild cranberries and bunchberries. However, neither grows in our region. 

Is partridge berry an herb?

As University of Illinois Extension states, “In the botanical sense, an “herb” is an herbaceous plant that lacks a woody stem and dies to the ground each winter. Another definition describes herbs as any plant or plant part that has historically been used for culinary or fragrance purposes.”

So could partridge berry plants be considered an herb? In our opinion, no, partridge berry plants are not herbs based on botanical definitions. And although the leaves are technically edible (as we’ll detail below) they don’t impart a strong flavor like common culinary herbs. 

How do you eat partridge berries? What are they good for? 

Again, partridge berries certainly won’t win any taste competitions, but they are edible and make a perfectly good trailside snack, especially for kids who have an innate desire to forage. 

Due to their bright red color, partridge berries can also make an attractive garnish on salads or desserts. We like putting a few of them on top of our Christmas tree crème brûlée recipe (made from spruce or other edible conifer needles) at holiday meals or using them as edible, decorative table decor. 

Find out how to make Christmas tree crème brûlée using the needles from your Christmas tree or other edible conifers!

Partridge berries might not be the most delicious fruit in the world, but they can brighten up a dish or a table setting, as you can see here with our Christmas tree crème brûlée.

Partridge berry leaves

Partridge berry leaves are also edible and used to make teas. In fact, there is historical documentation indicating that Native American women used partridge berry leaves to aid in childbirth. 

Until recently, there wasn’t any modern research to validate such uses. However, in 2021 Samuel Horner and Teresa DeGolier published a paper in the Journal of Medicinal Plant Studies showing “some empirical support for the claim that Mitchella repens [extracts from partridge berry leaves] can augment labor contractions and/or potentially induce labor.” 

These findings also mean pregnant women should avoid using partridge berry leaf tea without first consulting a doctor or medical expert. 

How do you grow partridge berries? 

If you live in the native range of partridge berries and have a woodland or shade garden, partridge berries are an excellent shade-loving, evergreen ground cover to consider. 

If you're looking for a gorgeous native, evergreen ground cover for your shaded or woodland landscape/garden, partridge berry is a plant you should consider.

If you’re looking for an attractive native, evergreen ground cover for your shaded or woodland landscape/garden, partridge berry is a great choice.

The easiest way to start growing partridgeberries is via cuttings (taken from spots where it’s legal to do so). Here’s how:

When – The best time of year to take cuttings of partridge berry plants is in the late winter-early spring. 

How – Snip off multiple ~10″ vining pieces that are rooted in multiple spots. Carefully dig out the rooted sections to avoid root damage.

As soon as possible, transplant each cut piece into its final location in your yard/garden, and water them in. Also, water every couple days for the next 2-3 weeks (if there’s no rain) to ensure a relatively stress-free transplant until the plants are established. 

Can you grow partridge berries from seed? 

Yes, you can grow partridge berries from seed, but it’s much more difficult than growing them from cuttings. Frankly, the easiest way to do so is what we’ve done in the forested area on our own property… Bring home berries in the late fall or winter (any time after all leaves have dropped) and put the berries into the spots you want the plants to grow. 

To increase the likelihood of successful germination and plant growth:

  1. Pull back any leaf litter in the immediate spots where you put the berries so there is bare soil.
  2. Sow the entire berry just under the soil surface (or plant just the seeds by eating the fruit and removing the seeds with your mouth). 

Where can you buy partridge berry plants? 

If you’d rather buy partridge berry plants, you can find them at many native plant nurseries, locally or online. 


We hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about partridge berries, a beautiful native plant. And if you happened to find this article because you were concerned about whether your toddler or child can eat partridge berries, we hope your fears have been assuaged!

KIGI,
Tyrantfarms

More native edible plants you’ll want to grow or forage:

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Heather
    July 20, 2022 at 9:55 pm

    Do you have any other recipes for partridge berries? Do you think you could use them in a quick bread like you were making cranberry bread? If so, would you just toss them in with the batter and bake or would you do anything special to the berries beforehand?

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      July 21, 2022 at 12:22 pm

      Hi Heather! We don’t have any additional recipes for partridge berries because: a) we typically just eat them on hikes rather than gathering them and bringing them home, and b) they’re not a very flavorful berry that will really stand out in a recipe. You could add them to a quick/breakfast bread, as you mentioned. However, they would add more visual interest than actual flavor and some people might find the seeds a bit off-putting in that culinary context. If you come up with a good partridge berry recipe, please check back and let us know!

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