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Mitchella repens has opposite, evergreen, glossy, oval to heart-shaped leaves, 1/2 inch across, with parallel veining in the midrib and carpets the ground with its 12- to 18-inch vines. The bright red berries are edible, but nowhere near as tasty as Gaultheria procumbens (Teaberry), and persist all winter unless the partridges, grouse, fox or other wildlife discover them.
Native to 35 states and 3 provinces of Canada east of the Mississippi, this extremely useful groundcover is rarely seen in the trade. I fail to see why, as it's very easy to propagate by rooting cuttings or from seed. In fact, it forms adventitious roots as it gently winds its way around the garden. It could never, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered aggressive or invasive.
And guess what else! I just happened to have a pot at eye level and discovered that the pink to pure white, tubular flowers that occur in pairs from June to July are really very fragrant. Here's a closeup of the flowers - and another here.
As I said, the flowers occur in pairs and after fertilization, the two flower ovaries fuse together, giving rise to a single red fruit. The two dimples on the fruit reveal its fused nature.
As strange as it may seem, the genus Mitchella is in the Rubiaceae (Madder) family, the same family as Coffee arabica. Yes, that's the same coffee we get at Starbucks and Panera! Native American women often drank a tea made from the leaves of this plant as an aid in childbirth.
I use Mitchella repens as a native alternative to that nasty Vinca that I've been trying to rid myself of for over 30 years. It seems to tolerate dry soils although in its natural habitats, it's usually found in rich, moist, acidic woods.
I can't say that Mitchella repens is "completely" deerproof, however, it does seem that Bambi is fonder of the berries than the foliage and frequently seems to beat the birds to the bounty, while not intentionally disturbing the plant.
Barry Glick founded Sunshine Farm & Gardens in 1972 on 60 acres in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. His plant collection now numbers more than 10,000 taxa, many unknown to cultivation. Several of these plants have been introduced to gardening in recent years. Barry exchanges seeds and plants with people at arboretums, botanic gardens, nurseries and private gardens in virtually every country in the world. Peruse Barry’s speakers series here and read the rave reviews here. If you have any questions, would like to chat about any plants that Barry offers, send an email to his personal email address. Read all of Barry’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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