Northern Shade Gardening

Cornus Canadensis in the Garden and Mountains

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 Category: Perennials


Cornus canadensis group with red berries

Cornus canadensis group with red berries

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.

Cornus canadensis on forest floor

Cornus canadensis on forest floor

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.

Cornus canadensis flower in in my garden

Cornus canadensis flower in in my garden

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.

Cornus canadensis surrounded by green

Cornus canadensis surrounded by green

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.

Cornus canadensis group around logs

Cornus canadensis group around logs

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 white flower in my garden

Cornus canadensis white flower in my garden

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.

Cornus canadensis 2 plants with berries

Cornus canadensis 2 plants with berries

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.

Cornus canadensis with berries in fall

Cornus canadensis with berries in fall

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.

Cornus canadensis under tree branches

Cornus canadensis under tree branches

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.

Cornus canadensis bunchberry collage of autumn colour

Cornus canadensis bunchberry collage of autumn colour

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.

Cornus canadensis in snow

Cornus canadensis in snow

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.

38 Responses to “Cornus Canadensis in the Garden and Mountains” »

  1. Barbarapc :
    October 31, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Snow so soon. Hope it melts before you starting getting major dumps. I always find it interesting to see the difference in plants grown in my garden, and those in the wild. Good comparison shots. C. canadensis is indeed a lovely low maintenance plant that works overtime to give 3-season interest.

  2. Marit :
    October 31, 2012 at 9:39 am

    So beautiful this perennial is! I’ve seen it on sale here in Norway, but I never got bought it right here. I have a lot of woodland areas in the garden, so this would look perfect here.I see that there is snow on the pictures. It has been snowing here too, but today it rains a lot.

  3. Monne :
    October 31, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Cornus canadensis is truly a beautiful and nice ground cover, maybe I should plant some plants as ground cover under our Rhododendron Shrubs :) Hope you have not been hit by Sandy, heard she was coming to Canada; (Take care / Monne

  4. M/S Design Mariana :
    October 31, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Jag har inga i min trädgård men dom är mycket söta med sin vita blomma.
    Hoppas det är ok att jag skriver på svenska!
    Nyfiken på vad du har för klimat det verkar vara som hos oss i Sverige.
    Have a nice day

  5. Northern Shade :
    October 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Barbarpc, it is supposed to warm up a bit, but I don’t know if the snow will melt, or if this is the start of our permanent snowcover. I think bulb planting season is now over. :(

    Marit,it is a good plant for under your trees. The autumn leaf colour is my favourite time for it.

    Monne, I’m in western Canada, so I’ll be out of its range. The Cornus canadensis would work well as an underplanting.

    Mariana, mine don’t get as many white flowers as some I’ve seen in the wild, possibly because it is extra shady. I probably have a similar climate to Northern Sweden. Our winter temperatures can go down to -40° C (-40° F), but over the last few years it hasn’t gotten as cold.

  6. Landbohaven :
    November 1, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Jeg kom bare lige forbi.
    Rigtig gode billeder.
    Tak for kigget.
    Ha´ en dejlig aften.

  7. Northern Shade :
    November 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Landbohaven, thanks, the bunchberry are especially fun to photograph when their leaves are changing, or the ones in the mountains with all of the red berries.

  8. Gitte :
    November 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Very interesting plant. It has very beautiful foliage and flowers.

  9. Liz :
    November 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm


    Lovely looking little plant, almost like sweets on the ground!

    Is that as large as it gets? Crazy! But as you say, it is handy ground cover… Although the moss is also very pretty :)

  10. Northern Shade :
    November 2, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Gitte, the ones I saw in the mountains this fall were just loaded with the bright red berries.

    Liz, Cornus canadensis is small, but it’s actually a subshrub. The base of it is woody like a shrub, and so I don’t cut them back in fall. I would love to get that wonderful moss coverage of the mountains, but in my drier climate, the moss grows very slowly.

  11. Sadun blogi :
    November 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    You’ve got some snow as well. We had it too, but all the snow has melt now.

  12. Marie :
    November 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Beautiful photos :)

  13. Northern Shade :
    November 3, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Sadun blogi, the snow is covering even more of the bunchberries now. Only the very tips are visible over the top of the snow.I think it is here to stay.

    Marie,thanks. The scenery around Banff is fantastic, and I enjoy all of the plants of the forest floor.

  14. Helena :
    November 4, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Fine with natural woodland in the garden.I often look in the forest after ideas.In my garden they grow really bad.Too shady i think they have under ‘Osakazuki’ They has not spread at all actually …
    Hugs from me!

  15. Northern Shade :
    November 4, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Helena, mine hardly grew the first couple of years, but now they seem to be spreading more in their third year.

  16. Rose :
    November 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I’ve heard of bunchberry before, but I knew next to nothing about it–thanks for introducing me to this lovely wildflower. The spring flowers are pretty, but the fall foliage is absolutely gorgeous! I have a similar spot under a spruce tree where I’ve had trouble getting much to grow–do they mind hot summers?

  17. Northern Shade :
    November 4, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Rose, I don’t think they like to dry out, so they might not do well if it gets hot and dry in the summer. Those leaves are semi-evergreen, so they are still adding colour, even with the snow all around them.

  18. debsgarden :
    November 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    The bunchberry is a very attractive plant and reminds me a lot of its cousin, Cornus florida, which is our native flowering dogwood tree. I love how bunchberry looks growing with the moss. I think your mossy bark would be a perfect accent. Your own bunchberry is gorgeous. I love its fall colors.

    Also, thanks for your comment on my recent post. You asked if I had taps and hoses that could reach to all my garden areas. I wish! I do have taps in several areas and some very long hoses, but some areas are beyond their reach. I try to plant things that are well adjusted to our climate and don’t need a lot of pampering, but sometimes I do use the watering can!

  19. Northern Shade :
    November 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Debsgarden, when you see how short they are, you might wonder how it gets grouped with the trees and shrubs in the genus Cornus, but the leaves and flowers show more of the family resemblance.

  20. Anna :
    November 6, 2012 at 11:12 am

    A plant for all seasons by the looks of it.

  21. Northern Shade :
    November 6, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Anna, bunchberry is more subdued during the summer, but it doesn’t have an unattractive period, because the leaves are semi-evergreen.

  22. Anette :
    November 6, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Cornus canadensis, der bei uns Teppichhartriegel heißt, ist hier fast unbekannt. In der freien Natur kommt er nicht vor und in den Gärtnereien findet man ihn nur selten. Dabei ist es ein so schöner Bodendecker. Ich pflanzte vor drei Jahren zwei Pflanzen an eine schattige, waldige Ecke. Sie haben sich gut entwickelt, blühen sehr schön, setzen aber keine Beeren an.
    Gruß Anette

  23. Northern Shade :
    November 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Anette, it is unfortunate that Cornus canadensis isn’t more available in your area, but a good thing that you found some. In the mountains here, and in the Boreal Forest, it is fairly common, but I don’t see it offered much at garden centres. I’m hoping that mine develop the berries next year.

  24. Ray :
    November 6, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Just a month longer, and it could be considered a Christmas plant with the green leaves and red berries.

  25. Northern Shade :
    November 6, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Ray, I think the last photo in particular looks like Christmas with the red, green and snow.

  26. Derek Yarnell :
    November 6, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing, I wondered what that plant was called. I have seen it around in my own woodland gardens. Great shots of it through the seasons.

  27. Pauline :
    November 7, 2012 at 1:36 am

    When we had a holiday staying with a friend in the Laurentian Mountains in Eastern Canada, Cornus canadensis was everywhere carpeting the floor of Betula papyrifera woodland. Tried some plants when we got back to the UK in our little woodland strip but I don’t think we are damp enough or maybe acid enough, they just dwindled away, such a shame.

  28. Northern Shade :
    November 7, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Derek, they make a natural looking cover under your trees in the garden.

    Pauline, they are widespread across Canada in woodlands. It’s regrettable that they didn’t work in your garden, since they are a nice looking plant.

  29. Corner Garden Sue :
    November 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I like those sweet looking plants. The white blooms remind me of trilliums. I have a number of native plants that are spring bloomers that died back this summer. I hope they come back this spring. I’ve found a number of native plants slow to get established. Do you still have snow on the ground, or has it melted by now? In the past, we have had snow by now, but so far this year, we haven’t had any. I don’t mind. ;o)

  30. Northern Shade :
    November 7, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Sue, some of my spring bloomers die back in summer, but our summers don’t get too hot and dry, so others that might be ephemeral in other zones will stay all summer here, like Dicentra (bleeding hearts). The bunchberry should look good all season, as it is really a subshrub.

    Our snow did melt two days ago, but winter has returned today with a deep pile of snow, so I think the garden will be covered until spring now. Lucky you to still have a fall garden.

  31. Hans Pettersson :
    November 8, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Cornus canadensis, what a nice plant.
    Lovely photos.
    They may probably survive even in my garden in Northern Sweden.
    Have a nice day.

  32. Northern Shade :
    November 8, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Hans, they probably would. Our winters can go down to -40° C (-40° F), although lately it’s been more like -35° C. They do like acidic soil.

  33. Ellen :
    November 9, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Enjoyed your picture essay of this lovely native plant! I am happy to still see this growing in the wet woods of central MA (zone 5). I grow a patch of bunchberry in a woodland edge garden (enriched with pine needles and leaf litter) where it gets morning (eastern) sun. It is so lovely and spreads and blooms each year so I know it’s quite happy there. The flowers look like tiny dogwood blooms – after looking at your pics, I’m going to see if moss can be encouraged into that area. Time to add some rotten wood :)

  34. Northern Shade :
    November 9, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Ellen, like yours, mine grow in a natural mulch of spruce needles and some leaf litter. I’ll probably have to keep it a little more moist to get the moss growing. In the wild, I frequently see them growing near nurse logs.

  35. Ulrika :
    November 10, 2012 at 2:01 am

    I like them! Here we have a lot of Cornus suecica growing in the woods, they look a lot like C.canadensis. Maybe I’ll try some of them in the garden next year.

  36. Northern Shade :
    November 10, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Ulrika, it works well if you’re looking for a woodsy look under your trees, or if you want some more fall colour close to the ground.

  37. Missing the North :
    February 18, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I currently live in Southern Ontario, but grew up in Northern Ontario and my childhood home was surrounded by bunchberry. I absolutely love this beautiful little plant. Your series of photos is great and in my case, very nostalgic.

    I have tried to grow this plant in my current garden with little success – once a northerner, always a northerner.

    I am a HUGE fan of your site – thanks…..

  38. Northern Shade :
    February 18, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Missing the North, thanks, I really like bunchberry for the woodsy look that it adds to the garden.

    You must have had a beautiful setting for your home.

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