If you’re looking for something wonderful to dress up your holiday table this Christmas season, consider creating a traditional holiday decoration that harkens back to Colonial times: a festive partridgeberry bowl.

Partridgeberry

Mitchella repens offers bright red berries among evergreen leaves throughout winter.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Partridgeberry patch

Harvest a small patch of partridgeberry for a decorative holiday delight.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Making Partridgeberry bowl

Place your patch of partridgeberry in a shallow, decorative glass bowl and anchor it with small stones.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

Finished Partridgeberry bowl

Keep your finished bowl watered to help it thrive throughout the season.

Photo Credit: © Pennystone Gardens

You can still find these decorations being sold at holiday church sales from New England all the way down through Appalachia. What are they exactly? They’re bowls filled with a bit of Mitchella repens, or partridgeberry – a native groundcover from eastern US woodlands.

This beautiful evergreen has gorgeous, bright red berries about a quarter inch in diameter that last all winter, really spicing up a barren landscape. The plant’s leathery green foliage certainly adds a bit of holiday cheer, as well. And when the foliage dries, it smells of newly mown hay.

In the wild, you’ll find partridgeberry in shady woods, especially under pines and hemlocks or along shady streams near swamps. Some refer to this plant as a small, trailing evergreen shrub, while others say it’s a handsome woody vine with creeping stems. But no matter how the plant’s classified, many agree that it makes an excellent groundcover for shady spots in the home garden. In my own yard, it forms a slowly expanding mat that brightens up difficult spots on my garden’s edges.

I think you’ll find partridgeberry to be one tough cookie: It’s able to withstand winters that reach down to 40 degrees below zero! And hot summers don’t bother it too much either, although the plant seems to prefer cool, shady locations to really thrive.

In late spring, you’ll find partridgeberry blooming in tiny pairs of pinkish, tubular flowers about a third of an inch long along its woody stems. In my garden, I enjoy the pleasantly sweet blooms in June. Both of the blossoms in each pair must be pollinated to produce a single berry at the base. (These beauties appear in my garden come autumn.) And if you want to make sure those bright berries are still around for your holiday bowl, be sure to protect them from the birds, who love the tasty (and edible) fruit.

When the holidays roll around, it’s a piece of cake to create your partridgeberry bowl: Simply harvest a bit of the plant in your landscape. Use a sharp spade to slice off sections of the mat, and place it – soil and all – into a decorative bowl that can be kept moist, but not too wet. Then decorate with small stones to help anchor it down. (Legend has it that early in the 19th century, ladies in the Boston area would build increasingly elaborate bowls of partridgeberry and other plants, eventually enclosing them in glass containers, creating a forerunner to the terrarium.)

Once the holidays are past, you can keep your partridgeberry bowl going by giving it a bit of light from a cool window. In the spring, replant your mat of partridgeberry back in the garden where it can get dappled to solid shade. Once you’ve got a good patch of the plant growing, you can periodically divide it and create new colonies that’ll keep your partridgeberry bowl tradition going for years to come!