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.