Credit: Richard Hebda

Mats of this low-growing perennial roll over the high mountain landscapes of British Columbia. Technically a sub-shrub, partridgefoot grows from rhizomes and sprawling, somewhat woody stems. Numerous many-times-divided leaves tend to be clustered into ferny masses along the main stems, but occur more or less singly on flowering stems. A fanciful interpretation has it that the leaves resemble the tracks of ptarmigan (a type of partridge) in the snow, giving rise, of course, to the plant’s common name.

Masses of creamy-white flowers form 5 cm (2 in.) long clusters, technically called racemes, at the ends of leafy stems. The individual flowers are slightly less than 1 cm (0.5 in.) across and have five small rounded petals between which occur five small triangular sepals. At the centre of the flower is a disk fringed by 20 or so stamens, with five little pistils packing into the middle. Flower stalks reach to 20 cm (8 in.) in height and appear in summer well after the snow has melted.

Partridgefoot has a wide range of distribution, suiting it well to most gardens in British Columbia and adjacent regions, except those in hot dry climates. You will encounter it in the mountains throughout most of our province, aside from the Peace River country and the southeast. Elsewhere, it is distributed from Alaska to California and eastward to Montana. Its natural habitat largely consists of damp sub-alpine and alpine meadows, but not in the heavy shade of trees. It favours moist situations where the snow tends to lie just a little bit longer than elsewhere, and in fact, this protection under snow or other cover before the ground freezes may be the key to growing partridgefoot in cold dry climates, such as in northeastern B.C.

This species is superbly adapted to the rock garden, in moist or partly shaded corners. Though it thrives in full sun at high elevations, partridgefoot is best planted in partial shade or at the base of rocks where moisture collects. Try it under a slight rock overhang, perhaps in east-facing or north-facing aspects subject to less intense sunshine, or under the edge of a low shrub. A combination of partridgefoot and any of our Erythronium species might make a delightful scene.

Partridgefoot is easy to grow from seed and from rooted rhizome fragments. Another way to establish this plant, the method favoured by nurseries, is to take short (2-4 cm/1-1.75 in.) cuttings and place them in sand in a cool shaded spot until roots develop. In the spring of the following year, transplant the now-rooted shoot to the desired location.

My impression has always been that when flowering time comes, countless flower stalks will arise from the leafy blanket. Apparently, however, some populations produce only a few flowering stems, whereas others raise a mass of flowers. If collecting seeds or cuttings in the wild, look for profusely flowering patches. When obtaining plants from a nursery ask whether the source was coastal or interior, and choose accordingly, depending on where your garden is located.

While today we value partridgefoot for its low-growing beauty, the plant was used by interior First Nations for medicinal purposes. A poultice made from the crushed fresh plant was applied to sores by Upper Thompson peoples. The plant was also boiled in hot water (a decoction) for use in treating abdominal pains and as a remedy for profuse and prolonged menstruation.

Paradoxically, growing native plants always seems like such a challenge, particularly when it comes to alpines, which is why we tend to neglect these types of plants. But in the case of partridgefoot, we have been missing out on a marvellous groundcover, especially for those more difficult slightly shaded spots. It’s high time we welcomed this superb alpine into gardens across our province.

The following plant is hardy to the zone number indicated:
Luetkea pectinata – zone 1-2

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.