My botany professors in Florida first introduced me to partridgeberry, and with excitement I recognized the scientific name as a medicinal from one of my herbal books. This was back in the late 80s when the modern herbal literature was scanty, computers were not in my reality, and I still had yet to meet an herbalist in the flesh. I would learn a plant in school and then ride my bike quickly home to devour any information I could find on the medicinal uses of that plant. Partridgeberry and I became quick friends, as it would accompany me on my streamside explorations and canoe rides. I spent a lot of time in the woods by myself at that time, and relished the relationships with my newfound and cherished plant allies. These relationships were the threads that wove me into the interconnected majestic quilt of biodiversity and Gaian consciousness. I began to gain a purpose, and feel empowered as I learned how to wildcraft and make medicine for my neighbors and myself.
I learned to pick its stems so that some roots and stem remained and were able to continue growing. I made fresh tea and tincture from the leaves and stems, always including a bit of flowers or fruit depending on the season, for a whole plant medicine. Nibbling the edible red berries whenever I could, I developed a taste for the unusual fruit. Partridgeberries are not very sweet, and are more like a vegetable in flavor, being somewhat reminiscent of a slightly sweet and astringent cucumber. The fruit can brighten salads, make a fun trailside nibble, and is easy for little people to gather and gobble. Like many things in life, if we relax our expectations, we can appreciate what is.
Partridgeberry is in the Rubiaceae, or madder, family and has opposite, entire, leathery, ovate and glabrous (smooth, hair-less) leaves. Twinflower is yet another name for this prostrate evergreen vine, alluding to its two diminutive white flowers with a fused ovary, which eventually give rise to one fruit. There are two “eyes” on the fruit, which are the scars left behind from the fallen calyx and corolla of the flower, an usual trait helpful in identification. The two flowers giving rise to one fruit is an excellent doctrine of signatures for a reproductive tonic.
For many years after first meeting partridgeberry, I continued to live in Florida and traveled to the Berkshire Mountains in the summer to avoid the sweltering heat and humidity, fire ants, and mosquitoes. As you can imagine, there is not a large overlap between the floras of subtropical northern Florida and the northern reach of the Appalachian Mountains. But partridgeberry is one of the few plants growing abundantly in both locales, with quite an impressively large range. Mitchella is obviously quite an adaptable species, growing from central Florida north to Newfoundland and Quebec, west to Texas and up into Minnesota. Mitchella prefers to grow in the shade in well-drained soil, with the porosity being obtained from either the fluff of forest duff or sandy soils. Often growing under conifers, Mitchella repens frequently grows with rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera spp., Orchidaceae), and spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata, Ericaceae).
In much of its range, it grows under the shade of the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis, Pinaceae). I believe one of the reasons Mitchella thrives under conifers is because of the finer leaf litter created by needles, as opposed to the wider leaf litter created by broad-leafed trees. The eastern hemlocks are currently dying from infestation of the hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), an introduced insect from Asia. The old growth trees are particularly susceptible, and here in the southern Appalachians, the older hemlocks are all dead, except for the few trees that have been treated with insecticide. Until other trees take their place in the forest canopy, wide areas of our forests, especially along streams, are receiving more sunlight than usual. So far the partridgeberry seems to be tolerating the extra light, but I am beginning to see signs of sun damage on other forest floor inhabitants. My concern is that partridgeberry will not be able to tolerate the changes of increased sunlight and, later on, the denser shade and leaf litter cover created by broad-leafed trees, which will replace the hemlocks. Rhododendron is a common inhabitant with hemlocks in acidic mountain stream environments. I believe rhododendrons will be one of the major plant species replacing the dying hemlocks, which will be challenging to the understory plants as little grows under its dense shade and thick leaf litter.
Partridgeberry is on the United Plant Savers “to-watch” list, as one of our native medicinal herbs that could be potentially threatened, especially if it gains widespread popularity. Currently, Mitchella is far from the twenty top-selling herb lists, with its major threat being habitat loss. Partridgeberry is easy to grow and quite adaptable to a wide variety of habitats, so its prospects look good. However, I am concerned about its immediate future, as it is so intertwined with the fate of the eastern hemlock.
Everything we know about this plant originates with the indigenous people of North America, who used partridgeberry as an emmenagogue, astringent, diuretic, parturient and styptic. In addition, it was used to ease menstrual cramps, help with labor pains and ease delivery. Topically, partridgeberry was employed as a wash for sore nipples during breast-feeding. Squaw vine is an early name for this plant, attesting to its Native use in treating female reproductive disorders. Squaw vine usually goes by partridgeberry these days as the term squaw has been used in a derogatory way by many Europeans and is considered to be insulting by many Native women.
Personally, I have a strong sense of gratitude for partridgeberry as an ally, which helped to bring my sweet daughter, Ruby, into this world. I had just had a miscarriage three months earlier and was in my early pregnancy. I began experiencing strong cramping and heavy bleeding with large clots. I used a tincture made of equal parts Mitchella repens, wild yam root (Dioscorea villosa, Dioscoreaceae), and black haw root bark (Viburnum prunifolium, Adoxaceae) taking 2 mls, 3-6 times a day. These herbal allies, along with bed rest, Epsom salt baths, and Ruby’s feisty spirit, saved her pregnancy.
Another story of Mitchella involved a woman in her sixth month of pregnancy who was experiencing a lot of stress in her home life. Her emotional situation had intensified the usual “practice” contractions typically felt in later pregnancy and she was concerned that she might go into early labor. I recommended a tincture of equal parts Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus, Rosaceae) and Mitchella repens. She took 2-3 droppers full three times a day and her contractions subsided.
Mitchella is also indicated in early pregnancy for women who have experienced multiple miscarriages or are facing a potential miscarriage. The dosage in this situation, and most others, would be 2-3 droppers full of tincture three times a day. A decoction from the dried or fresh herb may also be employed in such a situation. I am conservative with herbs in pregnancy and recommend their use only when necessary. It is my belief that a healthy pregnancy does not warrant the use of partus preparators, as the body in its wisdom knows how to give birth. Contemporary uses in female reproductive disorders also include tonic treatment for infertility and menstrual cramps.
Some other uses of partridgeberry involve its use in urinary tract disorders; it can give ease in urinary tract infections, interstitial cystitis, and BPH as a diuretic and astringent. The Alabama herbalist, Tommie Bass, used the leaves for incontinence in children, “kidney trouble”, and the berries for diarrhea and painful urination. It has also been used as a moderate astringent for gastro-intestinal disorders, including diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Cultivation of Partridgeberry:
Soil and site requirements: Mitchella prefers to grow in sight of streams and spring seeps, but not right next to the water. If you don’t have any wet sites or streams, plant it in the shade and water it occasionally during droughty spells. Mitchella is a running plant and will spread indefinitely as long as it doesn’t suffer too much competition from faster growing or more upright understory plants. You may want to help partridgeberry by weeding, cutting-back or transplanting highly vigorous co-inhabitants. Harvest vining stem tips, leaving some of the plant rooted, and you can continually harvest from the same site as long as the population is large enough. pH 5-6; Zones 3-9, moist soil, can be sandy or fluffy, partially broken-down forest duff but not too clayey, full shade to part shade, under conifers or mixed hardwood/conifers.
Propagation: The preferred method of propagation is by layering during the growing season, or stem cuttings in the fall. The easiest method is to take a growing vine tip and bury a portion of the stem one inch below the soil, weigh it down with a rock, leaving the distal end of the stem above ground. You can do this right on site in the earth, or in a soil-filled pot next to the plant. Check back in a couple months by gently pulling on the free tip of the buried vine to check for resistance. If the stem is rooted, you can then cut the tip from the parent plant and dig up your layeringling. You can then transplant the new plant to a different site, or pot it up. Some other running plants that can be grown this way are gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae) and jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum, Cucurbitaceae). Since the plant naturally spreads in this manner, you can also find rooted portions, divide them into several plants, and move them to their new site or pot them up.
Mitchella is much trickier to grow from seed. The seeds are hydrophilic, which means they cannot be stored dry for very long and should be planted as soon as possible. Wash the seeds free of pulp before planting. Germination takes place after three months of cold moist stratification, though sometimes it can need alternating treatment of warm moist, cold moist and then warm moist. Which means if you plant seeds in the late summer, you may get germination the following spring or in the second spring after planting.
Partridgeberry Materia Medica
Common names: partridgeberry, mitchella, twinflower, squawvine
Scientific name: Mitchella repens, Rubiaceae (Madder family)
Part used: leaves and stem
Preparation and dosage: Fresh tincture 1:2 95%, dry tincture 1:4 60%, both preparations 1-2 mls 3x/day. One teaspoon of the dried herb or two teaspoons of the fresh herb finely minced, decocted in one cup of water for twenty minutes, drunk 3x/day.
Actions: uterine tonic, partus preparator, diuretic, astringent, parturient
Energetics: cooling and drying
Indications: Partridgeberry is a uterine tonic for heavy menstruation, and after childbirth, miscarriage, surgical abortion and D&C. It is one of the safer partus preparators and parturients, and is often used to prevent miscarriage with wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) and black haw (Viburnum prunifolium). Also used in amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, and infertility. Urinary tract: urinary tract infections, benign prostatic hyperplasia, interstitial cystitis, bed-wetting in children, recurrent urinary tract infections in pregnancy, edema, dysuria. Digestive: diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids
Specific Indications from Eclectic sources: Atonic conditions of the female reproductive organs; tardy menstruation, uneasy sensations in the pelvis with dragging tenderness and pressure, frequent desire to urinate, and difficulty in evacuation. Also on menorrhagia: Excessive bleeding caused by uterine atonicity with a sensation of fullness, tenderness and pressure in the abdomen.
Side effects/contra-indications: May be too drying for long-term use with drier constitutions. Combine with demulcent or moistening herbs to mediate its effects.
This article originally appeared in Plant Healer Magazine, http://planthealermagazine.com/, a quarterly e-journal of Traditional Herbalism.