One of the smaller plants in K-Country that’s literally everywhere is awesome no matter what season you see it in. Our favourite is in the fall when its leaves turn red and add to the ground cover colour in the forest, plus has fun red berries as well, which is where it gets its common name.
Bunchberry (cornus canadensus) is also known as Dwarf Dogwood, and is of the genus Cornus like the much larger (and also fruit bearing) Red Osier Dogwood, which is far better known. It’s extremely common in almost all cool, moist, coniferous woods, and is not just found in Canada but also in eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, northeastern China and the Russian Far East), the northern United States, Colorado, New Mexico and Greenland. Depending on where you are in the world, it’s also called bunchberry dogwood, Canadian dwarf cornel, pigeonberry, squirrelberry, low cornel, ground dogwood, bunchplum, creeping dogwood, cuckoo-plum, frothberry, dogberry, puddingberry, crowberry and crackerberry.
It starts its summer growing in mats with a pretty little white flower that reminds us of trilliums in Ontario – except the flower is not what you think. Those big white petals are actually bracts, or specialty leaves, surrounding the tiny greenish-white flower within.
These little flowers feature an explosive pollination system; when insects like bees land on the flowers, tiny hairs trigger the petals to open and fling out the pollen. According to Wikipedia:
This motion takes place in less than half a millisecond and the pollen experiences two to three thousand times the force of gravity. 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.
Once pollinated, those flowers eventually turn into clusters of little red berries very noticeable in the fall, further adding to the forest floor colour. The berries are food for grouse and other birds and small mammals all winter, butterflies like the flowers, and deer and moose eat the plant (with or without berries) all year round.
For us humans, the berries are edible but bland; the crunchy poppy-like seeds inside are reportedly enjoyable. They have pectin in them, and are sometimes added to jam for colour and to help it jelly. Inuit gather and freeze the berries, or store them in bear fat to eat over the winter.
A Nootka legend has it that a jealous husband marooned a woman in a cedar tree, and the berries are the drops of her blood.
Read about some other flowering plants of Kananaskis Country here!