Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

Bunchberry - Cornus canadensis

Fruit, Pectin, Smoke, Eyewash; Fever


General A low, trailing herb [IFBC][E-flora] and a perennial "growing to 0.3 m (1ft) by 1 m (3ft 3in) at a fast rate." [PFAF] "Bunchberry grows only 2 to 8 inches tall." [Berries] "somewhat woody at the base".[PCBC2004] rhizomatous. [Wiki]
Flowers "Inflorescence of a solitary, stalked, umbrella-shaped cluster" [IFBC][E-flora] White. [USDA-E-flora] "Small, greenish-white or yellowish to purplish;" [PCBC2004] "a large 4-petaled flower." [PSW] "The petals explode open to launch pollen". [EatTheWeeds] "The Bunchberry has one of the fastest plant actions found so far requiring a camera capable of shooting 10,000 frames per second to catch the action.[4]" [Wiki]
Fruits "Fleshy drupes, 6-8 mm long" [IFBC][E-flora] Red. [USDA-E-flora] The fruits grow in clusters. [Berries] 1 pit. [WildPNW]
Leaves "Evergreen more or less, 4-7 in a terminal whorl".[IFBC][E-flora] "They are elliptical, 1 to 3 inches long, and deeply veined." [Berries]
Habitat "Moist to mesic forests and openings",[IFBC][E-flora]and "bogs; often growing on tree trunks, logs, stumps..." [PCBC2004] "It likes moist well-drained forest soils and can often be the dominant ground cover. It will not grow where the summer ground temperature exceeds 65F." [EatTheWeeds]
Range "common throughout BC".[IFBC][E-flora] Washington, Oregon, Alberta, Manitoba, Idaho, Montana, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes region, New England, Central Appalachians. [USDA] northeastern Asia, southern Greenland. [EatTheWeeds]
Status Native. [E-flora]
Ecological Indicator "A shade-tolerant...forb.... Scattered to plentiful in the mossy understory of coniferous forests on water-shedding and water-receiving sites, on nitrogen-poor soils. Often inhabits decaying wood, sides of large stumps and tree trunks, and topographic prominences in nutrient-poor wetlands..."[IPBC][E-flora]
Notes "There are three species of bunchberry in British Columbia: Cornus canadensis, Cornus suecica, and Cornus unalaschkensis. All three species are very similar in appearance, and are not easy to separate, often requiring microscopic work." [E-flora] "Hybrids between C. canadensis and C. suecica have been treated as either a variety of C. canadensis (var. intermedia Farr.) or as a separate species (C. unalaschkensis Ledeb.)."[IFBC][E-flora] "Cornus canadensis is a very similar [to Cornus unalaschkensis] eastern species; the name has been frequently misapplied in the Northwest." [WildPNW] "Where bunchberry, a forest species, and Cornus suecica, a bog species, grow near each other in their overlapping ranges in Alaska, Labrador, and Greenland, they can hybridize by cross-pollination, producing plants with intermediate characteristics.[7]" [Wiki]


Other Uses

Medicinal Uses



"Succeeds in any soil of good or moderate fertility[1]. Easily grown in a peaty soil in shade or partial shade[187]. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Grows best in sandy soils[208]. Prefers a damp soil[1]. Not suitable for alkaline soils[28, 188]. A very ornamental plant[1], it grows well with heathers[187]."[PFAF]

Groundcover: "A good dense ground cover plant, growing well in light woodland[28, 208]. It takes a little while to settle down and needs weeding for the first few years[197] but becomes rampant when established and can then spread 60 - 90cm per year[208]." [PFAF]


"Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame or in an outdoors seedbed if there is sufficient seed[80, 113]. The seed must be separated from the fruit flesh since this contains germination inhibitors[80, 164]. Stored seed should be cold stratified for 3 - 4 months and sown as early as possible in the year[164]. Scarification may also help as may a period of warm stratification before the cold stratification[80, 164]. Germination, especially of stored seed, can be very slow, taking 18 months or more[164]. Prick out the seedlings of cold-frame sown seeds into individual pots as soon as they are large enough to handle and grow the plants on for their first winter in a greenhouse, planting out in the spring after the last expected frosts. Division in spring. This plant can be a bit temperamental when it is being divided. We have found it best to tease out small divisions from the sides of the clump, to avoid the need to disturb the main clump by digging it up. Try to ensure that each division has already produced some roots. Pot them up in light shade in a greenhouse and make sure that they are not allowed to become dry. Once they are rooting and growing away well, which might take 12 months, they can be planted out into their permanent positions."[PFAF]

Collecting Seeds: "Pick berries at the red ripe stage and remove the seeds." [NSSH Bubel]
When to Plant: "Marie Sperka, author of Growing Wildflowers, keeps hers in pots and plants out the whole potted clump without separating individual plants. Because the roots are scarcely disturbed by the move from pot to woodland ground, bunchberry clumps may be set out whenever the ground can be dug. Transplants dug from a nursery bed should be moved only when dormant." [NSSH Bubel]
How to Plant: "Sperka plant six to eight seeds in a pot and keeps them moist. She’s found that bunchberries sometimes germinate late - two to three years after planting - and that they thrive best if planted in groups. Single plants seem to languish." [NSSH Bubel]
Growing Conditions: "Bunchberries need strongly acid soil, shade, abundant humus, and a steady supply of moisture with good drainage. Sperka reports that she has been bunchberry colonies growing in soil with a relatively high pH of 6, leading her to suspect that the other conditions - shade, humus, moisture, and drainage - are more vital to bunchberries than highly acid soil. You’re need to be very determined, though, to grow these beauties in any but their ideal conditions, which also include coolish summers and what horticulturists call a cool root run - mulch, stone, or other surface insulation to keep the roots cool." [NSSH Bubel]

"Dogwoods (genus Cornus)....Some dogwoods are large trees, but those that bear the tastiest fruit are small trees or shrubs. No dogwood fruits are toxic, but most are mealy, astringent, and seedy." [TheNeighForage]

Cornus sericea L. Creek dogwood: "Shrubs 1-6 m. tall....Two subspecies ocurr in our area: subsp. occidentalis... and subsp. sericea....Moist habitats, often along streams." [HNW] This species has many uses, distinct from the Cornus canadensis/suecica/unalaschkensis complex, and will be treated seperately. [Personal Note]

Cornus suecica Swedish dwarf cornel/Swedish dwarf cornel: "...low-lands to alpine tundra, uncommonly in southeast Alaska, and more commonly in Prince William Sound." [PCBC] Edible: "Fruit - raw or cooked[3, 46, 61, 62, 101]. It is usually mixed with other berries[257]. Bitter and unpalatable[2]. The fruit is rich in pectin[172]." Medicinal: "The fruit is considered to be a good tonic for the appetite[4]." Other: "The fruit is rich in pectin[172]." [PFAF]2

Cornus unalaschkensis Ledeb. Bunchberry: "Rhizomatous perennials 7.5- 20 cm. tall....Margins of bogs and marshes and in moist forests." [HNW] "long considered to be identical with C. canadensis of E North America. It is now believed to have originated as a hybrid between C. canadensis and C. suecica of N Europe, northern Asia, and extreme northwest North America." [PWOBC] Edible: "Fruit - raw or cooked[257]. The fruit can be dried for later use[257]. A small berry about 6mm in diameter[K]. The fruit is rich in pectin." [172] [PFAF]3


Page last modified on Friday, December 24, 2021 1:32 PM