Cornus Canadensis, a Woodland Groundcover

Cornus canadensis in Banff National Park
Cornus canadensis in Banff National Park

While hiking in the Rocky Mountains last week, I saw the ground under the conifers covered with a lovely carpet of Cornus canadensis (bunchberry), rising up through the moss. The little white flowers stretched out in the distance, making a wonderful groundcover among the evergreens.

I was inspired to recreate the little woodland floor scene of the first photo in my own garden. The reality of the bunchberry planting is getting a little fuzzy now, compared to the picture in my memory. I have a suburban sized garden, so the planting would have to be a smaller version. Back in town this week, I looked around the greenhouses for some Cornus canadensis, but I only found three healthy looking plants. My picture of a carpet of these perennials under my conifers was reduced to a carpet sample. Also, the ground under my conifers in front is rather dry, so no moss grows there. However, I do have a small group of this little woodland groundcover now, and they are charming, if a little downscaled from my imaginary garden. It reminds me of when they lowered the Stonehenge model in the movie Spinal Tap.

Here are my three bunchberry perennials in their pots still. I might try transplanting some of the moss from my back patio to the garden area under my spruce, around the Cornus canadensis. It’s certainly shady enough, and maybe with a bit of watering in, it might get established., even if it’s not the really beautiful moss of the forest floor.

Cornus canadensis in pots
Cornus canadensis in pots

In the montane forest where I saw the bunchberries, the trees were competing with each other for light, so most of the branches were up high, and the area underneath was fairly open. The forest was mainly Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and white spruce. It was damp, and wispy lichen hung from the trees. Mixed in with the Cornus canadensis on the forest floor, were some Linnaea borealis (twinflower). These woodland groundcovers made a very serene scene.

My garden conditions are not quite the same as the montane forest. I have pine and spruce, and the spruce have branches close to the ground. It’s also drier, and I’m missing the wispy lichen, but I think the bunchberry will add a woodsy feel to my suburban forest site.

Bunchberry gets large clusters of red berries after the flowers fade. Perhaps some of the local wildlife will enjoy the berries from these plants after I’ve enjoyed the flowers. In the fall, the foliage turns bright colours, which will extend the interest. You can see the fall colour change of bunchberry in this post.

For now, I have a smaller version of the woodland floor from the Rockies, with Cornus canadensis plants. I can always extend it next year. Do you ever get inspired by natural areas when planning your garden?

16 thoughts on “Cornus Canadensis, a Woodland Groundcover”

  1. Bunchberry is a lovely little plant, and I do love those red berries. I love the idea of recreating part of a woodland in one’s own garden — this should do very well in the shady beds. Take pics when they’re settled in!

    1. Nancy, these little bunchberry plants look healthy, and should settle in well. I hope they fill their garden space, and flower well next year, leading to some nice berry clusters.

  2. Your bunchberry carpet sample may surprise you and turn into what you saw in the Rocky Mountains. I luv seeing moss. I noticed that you’re in zone 3. Not easy to find a blog coming from a place colder than my zone 4.

    1. Donna, they do spread, so these ones may be the start of the patch, or maybe I’ll find some more healthy ones around town to add eventually.

      I love moss too, especially the thick, spongy, luxuriously textured kind. When I hike, I try to stay on the paths, and not trample all of the undergrowth, and I do try to resist the urge to test the moss for springiness. :)

      Yes, all the plants have been tested for their cold hardiness in zone 3. :) I’ve been pleased with how many different borderline plants have survived our winters. We get reliable snow cover, which helps, and the trees donate some leaf cover too. Being in the city, with protection around, probably gives a little boost too.

  3. Hi Northern Shade,

    I’ve been trying to capture a native woodland feel in several of my shade beds. I think you made a good choice with bunchberry: it has done well in my Edmonton garden and the original plants looked quite a bit sadder than yours when we rescued them from a local home goods store in 2005. They are in a north corner of the house, the last spot to thaw in the spring, but near the hose, so they do get lots of extra water during the summer. This corner is one of the few spots in my garden that approaches the beauty and complexity of many of your pictures (e.g. the stunning ‘Shady Foliage Combination’ that you posted on Monday).

    At the moment bunchberry along with blue and a few pink Victoria series forget-me-nots fill the border around a large Pulmonaria saccharata ‘Roy Davidson’ and a Trollius cultivar ‘Lemon Queen’. Intermingled with them are the hand-like leaves of the native coltsfoot (Petasites palmatus) and behind them, up against the house are other natives: Lindley Aster (Aster ciliolatus) and native bedstraw (Galium boreale). A sad Hosta ‘Francee’ and a new Japanese Painted Fern are competing for the two small spots left. Only the aster and the forget-me-nots are in bloom at the moment, but the red bunchberries add highlights, and this shady corner has attractive blooms from early spring (coltsfoot) through July and nice foliage all summer.

    I’d like to claim that I planned this corner to look the way it does, but it really resulted from natural and unnatural selection. Winter kill in this deeply shaded spot has been horrendous (a monkshood, Jack Frost and Spring Yellow Brunnera, Dicentra formosa ‘King of Hearts’, and Tiarella ‘Iron Butterfly’ all cocked it). Also, I made two mistakes with my native plantings: wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and Lindley Aster. I now classify wild strawberry as a weed and have spent many hours trying to grub it out. I think I’m winning the battle, but every crown you miss will pop back up and send out runners. As well as being invasive, the wild strawberry has a disease that causes the leaves to turn red and then brown, making it very unattractive, and rarely forms berries. The Lindley Aster is susceptible to both aphids and powdery mildew and usually looks a fright. However, I will say that the few I missed weeding look very nice at the moment – our drought has been hard on the mildew. The aster might do better in an area with better air circulation.

    I’m trying to establish some Linnea borealis this year (we have a quarter section of bush land near Elk Island as a source of native plants to try and reestablish in the City). I really like the dainty twinflowers and hope it will take. This bed (east-facing along a fence under an Evans Cherry, a Dart’s Gold Ninebark, and a saskatoon) has Wild Lily-of-the Valley (Maianthemum canadense) that went in two years ago and is finally showing signs of spreading a bit. The Maianthemum is more nice than striking, but it does add that bit of woodland feel in the spring when I can’t get out into the bush.

    1. Dave, The part of the garden where I’m planting the bunchberry is also one of the last to thaw in the spring. It sounds like you found a good site for your bunchberry, and you have a good variety of plants in that bed for all season interest. I think the Pulmonaria and forget me nots would look great with them. It’s too bad your Hosta is languishing this year. My Japanese painted ferns are never very robust. They get such a late start, not really putting out growth until late spring. Your bed took a big hit last winter. That’s a lot to lose. You are lucky that you can get some plants from your land. The Linnea borelais looked charming mixed in with the Cornus canadensis where I was hiking.

      Rebecca, I love the look of the duff and plants on the forest floor. My conifers are doing a good job of adding to the needles on the ground, but most of my fallen branches are in the back from the willow. Yes, it’s the hair lichen that hangs from trees. It gets shaken loose when the wind blows and little pieces float to the ground. They give an otherworldly look of an enchanted forest.

      I find all of those movies hysterically funny.

  4. Beautiful picture, I can almost smell the fresh mountain air from here! The layering of the forest floor is so lovely, with the fallen branches, needles moss & new growth. The crunching of needles when you walk is mesmorizing. Is the wispy lichen you describe commonly knows as ‘witches hair’? I find it gives the forest a very enchanted look. I hope your new ‘carpet samples’ spread quickly.

    The Stonehedge scene in Spinal Tap is classic. Somewhat off topic, but if you enjoy that movie, then you must watch “A Mighty Wind” which has the same actors, quite a few years later (also in “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”) Christopher Guest is Brilliant! :)

  5. The bunchberry are a very charming woodland plant. I see them in the ravine on my early morning walks and wondered if they could survive a suburban garden. (so yes, I guess I am inspired by the natural plantings I see :))

    My woodsy conditions are quite dry for them. However, I am not averse to watering, composting and mulching – particularly now that we are making plans for a rainbarrel.

    I hope these little charmers settle right in for you!

    1. The Garden Ms. S, I think they would do quite well with the attention you suggest. I don’t mind watering, and I’ve used a variety of mulches, but I already have some natural mulch. This area gets a lot of needle drop and cone scales, and the deciduous leaves blow in from other areas and get caught under the conifers. The ground here is actually a little springy from the accumulation, so they might feel right at home.

  6. I loved this entry. This is a beautiful plant and one that I had never seen before. I have some woodland areas in my garden. As you say, the areas under trees may be a bit too dry for it to thrive but I have a more open area which is less dry and they might do well there. I must seek it out and get some going in my garden. Is it only available in North America as I can’t find it in British plant websites?.

    1. GardenMad1, Cornus canadensis is a common wildflower of Canadian forests, and grows from Newfoundland on the east coast to British Columbia on the west. It is sometimes called dwarf dogwood. It gets the bunchberry name from the large clusters of bright red attractive berries it produces after it flowers. The Autumn leaf colour is bright too. The white that you see are the bracts, and the flower is small in the middle.

      I have seen it at a couple of greenhouses locally, but I’m not sure how commonly it is available. I don’t always see a lot of woodland plants available.

    1. Wurzerl, I’m not sure how it’s going to do in my garden, but I hope it likes the site. There are lots of decaying leaves and needles in this garden section, and the soil is light and full of humus.

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