Cornus canadensis (bunchberry) is a woodland plant that is native to large parts of Canada. It works as a groundcover under trees in the garden, too. This subtle plant with green leaves perks up with seasonal changes, adding colour to the garden with white flowers in late spring as well as bright red leaves and berries in autumn. This fall, I was hiking in the montane and subalpine areas near Banff, and saw bunchberry plants spread out into the distance as I hiked under the pine and spruce trees. You can see the wild bunchberry in the picture above. My own bunchberry patch is more modest in scale.
In my garden the Cornus canadensis is growing under a large spruce tree on the north side of the house, next to a walkway. It makes a very natural looking, easy care groundcover. I’m seeking an appearance that is a combination of forest floor and garden in this bed, so the Cornus canadensis fit in perfectly. I’m aiming for this bunchberry section to look like the photo above from the mountains.
The picture of the white bunchberry flower is from my garden in very late spring. I planted my C. canadensis 3 year ago, and they are just filling in now. Since they are a native wildflower, I expected them to spread a little faster, but I suppose the extra shady site under the conifers and the occasional dryness have slowed them down, or the bunchberry just took a while to settle into the garden. I often see larger patches of it in slightly damper conifer forests, so it might spread faster if I gave it more supplemental water.
The feather mosses are common on the forest floor, and give it a springy surface. I’d love to have more moss growing between the Cornus canadensis in my garden, like the picture above.They are often found in spruce and pine forests, so I thought they would enjoy my mini-forest of spruce and pine.
Here is another shot of the typical habitat where you will find bunchberry growing in the wild. There is lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and white spruce in this forest. Sometimes I see bunchberry growing with twinflower or kinnikinnick plants. I purchased mine from a garden centre and planted them 3 years ago in a group on their own in between some Tiarella and Hosta, but I’ve thought about planting some of those other natives with it.
Cornus canadensis gets small white flowers in the late spring. The photo shows the white flowers on my plants back in June. Those 4 decorative, white shapes are the bracts, and the flowers are the little green part in the middle.
Come autumn, the plants develop cluster of bright red berries. Mine didn’t get the berry clusters like the wild ones in the shot above. Birds and wildlife eat the berries, so either the neighbourhood wildlife got them already, or they never developed.
Looking at this shot from the mountains, I think I need to add some fallen tree logs. I do have a piece of bark that is developing a nice mossy coating on the other side of this bed that I might place in the bunchberry patch.
The understory in the mountains can be very serene in myriad shades of green, with shafts of sunlight reaching through the tree branches to highlight the little plants of the forest floor. For most of the year Cornus canadensis wears its green camouflage like the picture above, blending in to the forest floor.
Then the bunchberry leaves make a brilliant transformation in the fall, changing to bright shades of red and purple. Mine develop red and burgundy coloured leaves as the cooler weather sets in. The collage above is made with my garden photos from this fall. Before the snow comes, they give one last jolt of colour under the trees.
The colour flashes on the leaves are still visible as the snow settles on them. If you’re searching for a natural looking groundcover for a shady area, Cornus canadensis is a low maintenance choice.
Here are two new Heuchera (coral bells) that I’ve added to my garden this fall. Both ‘Peppermint Spice’ and ‘Havana’ have larger and more attractive flowers than some of my other foliage Heuchera.
Heuchera ‘Havana’ and Heuchera ‘Peppermint Spice’ are both suited to the shade. Most Heuchera don’t mind low light conditions, but some of the newer crosses have been selected more for sun tolerance. Since I have lots of shade, and don’t get excessive heat in my northern garden, I look for ones that do well in a shady location.
Here’s a closeup of Heuchera ‘Havana’ still in its pot before planting. For an extra flash of colour, the stems are a deep purplish red. The flowers will be a dark pink, almost red, color, but my three new ones won’t have any blooms until next year. Some coral bells have very small flowers on overly long stems, but ‘Havana’ have many bells arranged along a number of proportionate stems to make a more impressive display. These dense and attractive flowers on ‘Havana’ will rebloom as well, so it has more than just good looking leaves going for it.
Heuchera ‘Havana’ has very light, yellowish green foliage, with a hint of silver. At times it has more yellow in the leaves. The leaf veins are an apple green colour. That lighter colour is especially noticeable in the shadows under the trees. There are small flashes of red and purple underneath some ‘Havana’ leaves now. The leaf colour of Heucheras can vary as the temperature drops, and even as moisture levels change. In early spring and late fall mine develop more red and purple tones.
Here is ‘Havana’ planted in the shade, beneath the boughs of my spruce. It’s recommended for very shady sites, or only a few hours of morning light, so I think it has the perfect location. You can see the darker shadows here, and how the leaves reflect the light that makes it under the tree, so the plants show up well. Next summer I’ll see how many flowers they produce in this section of the garden.
This photo was taken before our recent deeper frosts. By the time I planted the Heuchera ‘Peppermint Spice’ and reached for my camera, a ladybug had already settled in on the leaves. These insects were my constant companions while gardening this fall.
‘Peppermint Spice’ has green leaves with a faint silver overlay, and a darker brownish purple contrasting colour spreads in patterns along the leaf veins. The leaves are similar to my ‘Mint Frost’ or ‘Green Spice’, but the flowers are supposed to be nicer than either of those. The bright pink blooms of this cross are larger and more noticeable, which they get from their Heuchera sanguinea heritage. I’ll see how many flowers they get in a shady location next year.
The Heuchera ‘Peppermint Spice’ will get an hour or so of early morning light, and then indirect and dappled light for the rest of the day. Since ”Peppermint Spice’ is best in part shade to shade, they should do well here. The foliage behind the flowers is from a tall Actaea simplex. The conspicuous flowers of ‘Peppermint Spice’ should show up well against the green background.
This garden section is backed by Actaea simplex ‘Atropurpurea’ (bugbane). I planted the ‘Peppermint Spice’ in front between groups of Tiarella ‘Sugar and Spice’ (foamflower) and Heucherella ‘Tapestry’ (foamy bells), both of which have evergreen leaves, too. There are also pretty little Campanula (bellflowers) planted here, some C. poscharskyana (Serbian bellflower), and C. cochlearifolia (fairy thimble bellflower). Next to the Actaea are some Osmunda regalis (royal ferns). These ferns are supposed to grow very tall, 1.2 to 1.8 m (4 to 6 ft), but in my climate they are more like minor nobility at about 30 cm (1 ft) tall.
I’m looking forward to seeing how ‘Havana’ and ‘Peppermint Spice’ settle into the garden. I’ll show pictures next year of how the new Heuchera look flowering in the shade. My other Heuchera have been winter hardy in my zone 3 garden, so I expect these to do well. Heuchera leaves look fabulous in the fall and continue to look great well past the frost. Even after a snow fall, if they aren’t buried, they are adding wonderful colour to the shade garden.
I’ve been digging up more lawn and expanding the garden bed between some spruce trees. This section is going to have mainly plants with silver leaves. The perennials here will have to enjoy the shade, but this part of the garden does get some sun in the morning. I had a number of other silver plants already chosen for this site, but as I renovated and expanded other garden beds, the stash got raided and I used them all up, so my plans changed a little.
The main plants here will be 14 Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’. ‘Looking Glass’ have leaves with lots of silver on them, and a pretty pattern of dark green lines along the veins and edges in early spring, very much like Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Then in summer the silver expands to cover most of the leaf and the green lines are very thin. The silver leaves are almost like little mirrors for your garden, reflecting the light and brightening up shady areas. The terrific foliage will last past the first light frosts in autumn. We’ve had a number of days of frost and a night as low as -4° C (25° F), yet my Brunnera in the garden still have gorgeous leaves. I love the Brunnera for this long season of interest in the garden. Since our growing season can be very short in zone 3, any plants that produce leaves quickly in spring and hold them past a few frosts in autumn are highly desirable. The Brunnera do very well under trees, too. They also hit the sweet spot of being very easy to grow, but never annoying or spreading too far.
While I got some great deals on these perennials, the one problem with end of season plants is that the roots can be pot bound. With the plant out of its pot and on its side, you can see the roots are encircling the root ball. I cut the edges, and teased the roots out, to encourage them to grow outwards once they are planted. I’m not too worried about the tight pot causing problems for the Brunnera, as I’ve planted them in much tighter spaces in my garden.
In my back garden, one Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, shown above, is planted in a tiny pocket in between large willow roots with almost no soil. In fact, there wasn’t room for the whole root ball when I planted it, so I shook most of the soil off and squished the almost bare roots into the narrow confines. Then I sprinkled a little soil on top to hide the evidence of the crime. Most plants would not be happy with this treatment, but that Brunnera is still growing 5 years later. It is smaller than my other Brunnera, but gets the same beautiful leaves. Only Little Runty and I, and now you, know the truth of what it’s like under the soil surface.
The pretty blue sprays of flowers, looking like forget me nots, last for about 6 weeks in spring. Originally I had some Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ to plant in the front garden, but planted them elsewhere. Then at an end of season sale, I got a great deal on a number of ‘Looking Glass’. I was surprised that there would be so many of these wonderful plants left on the deep discount table. Obviously I haven’t done enough to explain how perfect the Brunnera are as garden plants, or they would have been snatched up much quicker by other gardeners. On the other hand, it was lucky for me to find so many remaining.
I’ve left a few vacant spots where I’m going to put some stepping stones. Now you might be asking, “Northern Shade, if you wanted to show the new ‘Looking Glass’ plants, why did you take such a blurry picture of them, and such a crisp picture of the spruce needles?”, because that’s what I’m asking myself now. I have refrained from digging them all up and sticking them back in their pots just to get a better picture.
The plants are actually bigger than they appear, since many of the largest leaves were deteriorating in their pots at the end of the season and had to be cut back, leaving just a few small leaves showing. When first planted, perennials often look so isolated as tiny plants at their required distance. However the Brunnera won’t take long to reach their full size, which can be 50 or 60 cm (around 2 ft) across. The broad leaves can form a nice solid patch that keeps out all weeds.
I was going to plant some Heuchera ‘Green Spice’ (Eco-Improved’), which has green leaves with a silver overlay and purple veins for part of this planting. Although the ‘Green Spice’ flowers are not showy, the leaves are wonderful. I planned on using it as a transition between the purple leafed Heuchera ‘Raspberry Ice’ which you can see in the top left corner of the photo above, and the silver Brunnera macrophylla. However the ‘Green Spice’ got co-opted for another garden bed. I looked around, but couldn’t find a nice silver and green Heuchera with a little bit of purple on it, because it was so late in the season. I decided to just put in the ‘Looking Glass’, and next year I’ll add some ‘Green Spice’ as a bridge in between the purple and silver.
I’ve also added the groundcover Lamium ‘maculatum ‘Orchid Frost’, with beautiful silver leaves that have narrow green bands around the edges. I got a great deal on the ‘Orchid Frost’ plants at an end of season sale, and would have planted a larger patch if there had been more remaining. However, the Lamium should spread easily.
In fact that is why I haven’t planted any Lamium up until now. I admired the wonderful silver colour of the new cultivars, but was wary that they might spread too quickly. I like the “hardy” quality in plants, but I don’t like the “move in and take over the whole garden” trait. These new cultivars are supposed to be well behaved and far removed from the more annoying Lamium, so I’ve decided to give them a try. Since they are backed by a gigantic spruce tree behind, and a walkway in front, there isn’t too much space to get annoying either. Their hardiness will come in handy here.
The flowers of ‘Orchid Frost’, looking like dragon faces, are a light pinkish purple colour. I don’t expect the tiny flowers to be very showy, but I planted them mainly for the leaf colour. I was looking for some more L. ‘White Nancy’, which has similar foliage with white flowers, but couldn’t find any left now. One advantage of the ‘Orchid Frost’ is that it is supposed to be more resistant to leaf diseases than other Lamium, which is a bonus for a foliage plant.
To add early spring flowers to this part of the garden, I planted some Chionodoxa ‘Alba‘ (glory of the snow) in between the Lamium. These are the white form of glory of the snow. I grow lots of the blue Chionodoxa forbesii and I’ve also planted some C. ‘Alba’ with blue Scilla siberica (squills) in my backyard, but here they will flower against the blue of the spruce needles. Tucking bulbs in between perennials extends the flower show.
In between the ‘Looking Glass’, I’ve planted some purple Crocus sieberii ‘Tricolor’ and yellow Crocus chrysanthus ‘Gipsy Girl’ (snow crocus). They will flower first before the Chionodoxa. After the Crocus flower, the Brunnera will quickly grow large leaves that will hide the crocus foliage as it dies back.
The lawn was full of these ladybugs. Just about every piece of sod that I dug up had to be inspected for ladybugs before I turned it over. Then I had to carefully coax them out from between the grass blades and spruce needles, and deposit them on some nearby plants. It probably doubled the time required for digging. It was a beautiful gardening day for October, so I didn’t mind spending time outdoors, and got into a rhythm of dig, inspect, move, turn, and repeat.
The lady bugs are digging in for winter now, and finding protected spots under the leaves to brave the Edmonton winters. The perennials are dieing back and retreating underground in preparation for the approaching cold. I’m not quite ready to retreat indoors yet for winter, but I’m already anticipating spring when my new perennials will return with some nice silver leaves against the silvery blue spruce needles.