One of the smaller plants in K-Country that’s practically everywhere along the forest trails is awesome no matter what season you see it in. Our favourite time is in the fall, when its leaves turn red and add to the ground cover colour in the forest. This is in addition to its fun red berries, which give it its common name, Bunchberry.
A little plant with a LOT of names
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) 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. It is found in Canada and through the northern United States and southward into Colorado and New Mexico. It’s also found in Greenland and in eastern Asia (Japan, Korea, northeastern China and the Russian Far East). Depending on where you are in the world, it’s might also be referred to as bunchberry dogwood, Canadian dwarf cornel, quatre-temps, pigeonberry, squirrelberry, low cornel, ground dogwood, bunchplum, creeping dogwood, cuckoo-plum, frothberry, dogberry, puddingberry, crowberry or crackerberry!
Beautiful ground cover
Bunchberry spreads by underground rhizomes to form what can be large colonies in the forest understory. Mature, blooming stems have leaves in whorls of 6. Stems that are younger and not yet mature enough to bloom have leaves in whorls of 4. Depending on elevation, bloom time in K-Country is from about late May through into August. Bunchberry blooms with a pretty little white flower that reminds us of the trilliums in Ontario – except the flower is not what you think it is. Those four, big white “petals” are actually bracts, or specialized leaves. These specialty leaves surround a cluster of 5-15 tiny cream-coloured flowers in the centre of the bracts.
These little flowers feature an explosive pollination system. When insects such as 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. These are very noticeable in the fall, further adding to the forest floor colour.
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 gel. Inuit gather and freeze the berries, or store them in bear fat to eat over the winter.
More importantly, the berries are food for grouse, other birds, and small mammals all winter. Butterflies like the flowers. Deer and moose eat the plant (with or without berries) all year round.
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!