As traffic increases exponentially and huge trucks belch dirty black smoke as they scream up and down the Gore Road at impossible speeds (no one enforces laws like speed limits – or much of anything else) I have given up walking on the road. It has simply become too dangerous. Someone I know almost got hit a couple of days ago.
Instead, I have taken to the woods, and oh what a summer and fall it has been. I have spent my time researching whatever caught my attention, the absolutely best part of being a naturalist/ecologist/generalist. It was mushrooms for months, trees, autumn leaves; now it is ground covers. I can barely stand the thought of coming snow that will soon cover the forest floor separating me from all my friends. Shiny wintergreen leaves hide bright red berries. Trailing arbutus’s leathery leaves cascade over gentle hills and crowd together in large colonies on the ground. Princess pine snakes along the forest floor, candles aloft. Ground cedar fans her fronds in a circle, rosettes of pippesewa and other pyrolas – each have their niches – but my favorite woodland creeper is Partridgeberry. This seemingly delicate plant loves rich moist forest soil and because I spend so much time in the lowlands, I am surrounded by miles of this acid loving trailing vine that creates incredibly dense mats in places where it is particularly happy. All summer I kept an eye on the plants waiting for the berries to appear. By late August I began to glimpse a few hard lime green fruits. Now, almost half way through November the forest floor is covered with dark jade leaves that provide a sharp contrast to stunning scarlet berries. Frequently I need to uncover nature’s deciduous mulch to see the bounty hidden below.
As a child I grew partridgeberry in a terrarium taking great joy from the sight of crimson berries that lasted until spring. As an adult I kept a few berried sprigs in a clear glass ball that I hung on a Norfolk Island pine I kept in the house to decorate during the winter season. I also kept partridgeberry and other woodland plants in an open bowl watering this little garden daily. As soon as the soil was workable I would return these wild plants to the woods, grateful to have had a little piece of deep green forest floor that continued to thrive all winter long.
This year I have once again created a small terrarium for the house to remind me of my ‘Refuge’ and of all the ground creepers that will soon be sleeping under the snow while root tips remain in lively conversation. Root tips make decisions about next year’s growth with their underground partners and neighbors all winter long.
I carefully lifted soil and leaf mulch from areas where Partridgeberry was growing in profusion so that the plants would have all the nutrients they needed for a few months. After adding the Partridgeberry I included lichens mosses and a small hemlock seedling for contrast. The ‘right’ stone turned out to be a piece of chert. Because I like the immediacy of an open forest no matter how small I mist my woodland daily keeping an eye on the direction of the waning sun. Even under the snow this collection of plants receives light and I am intent upon mimicking nature as much as possible. When I stick my nose into my tiny forest the scent is intoxicating.
With so many plant species disappearing I am especially happy to be writing about a plant that isn’t under attack from humans on one level or another – at least not yet. As long as some forests are left alone these plants and others like them will continue to thrive, but we are chewing up our forests at an alarming rate and you will not find Partridgeberry in any forest that has been logged recently because it takes so many years for the soil to recover from its trauma. The other issue, is ‘receationists’, my term for those folks that are now swarming through our woodlands, either on foot or by machine. Partridgeberry and all the other ground covers I mention in this article will not tolerate being stepped on, let alone run over. Although the creepers will not grow in animal paths they thrive to either side; animals create lighter foot traffic. Consequently, I respectfully urge hikers to stay on the paths that various land trusts/others have created so that these plants can survive. Machines of any kind compact the earth beneath them making it impossible for any of these plants to grow at all.
Partidgeberry is a native perennial that does not climb; it finds home on the forest floor in eastern North America from Newfoundland to Minnesota, south to Texas and Florida in forests that are left undisturbed.Partridgeberry inhabits deciduous and coniferous forests rich in organic soil thriving in dappled sunlight or complete shade. The trailing stems root at nodes that come into contact with moist soil. The dark green evergreen leaves are oval shaped with a pale stripe. In late spring two white tubed flowers appear. Each tiny four petaled flower is impossibly fragrant – I always get wet because I have to get on my knees to smell one of mine! The pair of flowers appear in two forms. In the first the pistal is short and stamens are long; in the second the reverse occurs, the pistal is long and the stamens are short making it impossible for each flower to fertilize itself (Amazing nature!). Both flowers must be pollinated by insects – primarily bumblebees – in order to produce one berry, and each is the result of the fusing of each ovary belonging to the pollinated pair. If you look carefully at one Partridgeberry it is possible to see two spots on the fruit… (for years I wondered about this feature but never looked it up). Each berry contains up to eight seeds that are eaten by birds (turkeys and grouse always eat all of mine here). A number of animals also eat the berries. Chipmunks and squirrels, foxes, skunks and mice feast away if the birds don’t get them first. The seeds must be cold stratified and may take two years to germinate if they fall into the ground or are dispersed by birds and animals after eating them.Although I have rapidly spreading clusters of this creeper down around my brook I will never feel as if I have enough of this evergreen. I have a huge cluster that has recently overtaken an old trunk that is now sprouting two pines, three kinds of mosses and lichen… A young hemlock’s fronds gracefully shade the area.
Every year I check my Partridgeberry beginning in May looking for flowers. Last year most flowers bloomed in late May, almost a month earlier than usual. The tubular flowers in this area are almost pink reminding me of the trailing arbutus that also lives here. For anyone loving wildflowers finding either of these fragrant blossoms is a treat.