Bunchberry: Shade Ground Cover for Native Plant Landscaping

Diminutive Dogwood for the Woodland Garden

As my photo shows, bunchberry (a type of dogwood) is a short plant, not a tree or shrub.
Underdog: bunchberry, a tiny member of the Cornus genus, is sometimes called "dwarf dogwood.". David Beaulieu

Bunchberry may be quite a find for you if you live in North America and are interested in native plant landscaping.  Have you been seeking a shade ground cover for wet soil? Do you live way up North, where plant choices are limited by the cold conditions? Then you may have just found a perennial that meets your needs.

What Is Bunchberry?

Botanists, who know bunchberry as Cornus canadensis, classify the plant as an herbaceous subshrub.

If you are at least fairly familiar with botanical plant names, you may discern that its genus name (Cornus) places it among the dogwoods. To be sure, it could enter a dog show only in the Toy class, but its leaves and, especially, its flowers do give its family ties away. Its pedigree is the origin of such alternate common names as "dwarf dogwood," "creeping dogwood," and "ground dogwood."

Where Does It Grow?

The other part of the plant's botanical name, canadensis, offers a clue as to where it grows. Like many plants that bear this specific epithet, bunchberry is native to upper portions of the North American continent, from the northern United States on up through Canada (its range also reaches over to northeastern Asia). It is cold-hardy all the way up to planting zone 2 (it is listed for zones 2-7). In fact, bunchberry grows wild even in Alaska. Other plants with canadensis in their botanical names include:

Aquilegia canadensis (columbine)
Tsuga canadensis (hemlock tree)

Bunchberry ground cover is a woodland plant that grows in the shade of the forest. To be more specific (quoting Doug Ladd, from p.178 of North Woods Wildflowers), its habitat is "moist woods, often under conifers, and in wooded swamps, shaded bogs and peaty areas." Not surprisingly, then, it likes acidic soils.

While it is generally not listed as being salt-tolerant, it can be found growing in the wild within a stone's throw of the salty waters of the North Atlantic (see below).

What Does Bunchberry Look Like?

Cornus canadensis can grow to be as much as 8 inches in height but is frequently found growing shorter than that. Leaves grow in whorls (see the picture above). The leaves may turn a dark red in fall.

When not in flower, there will be four of these leaves; when bunchberry blooms, there are six (occasionally seven) leaves. The showy part of the flower structure is composed of four, white bracts; the actual flowers are tiny, yellow-green objects occurring in the middle (that is, at the intersection of these bracts). Overall, the flower structure reaches from 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches across.

The namesake berries are scarlet in color. They grow in clusters of as many as ten. This formation of a berry cluster is the origin of the common name, "bunchberry."

How Is It Used in Native Plant Landscaping?

Bunchberry can be a dream come true for aficionados of woodland gardens, provided that their landscapes harbor suitable growing conditions. To summarize what those growing conditions are, this wildflower grows:

  • Where there is shade.
  • Where the soil is moist.
  • Where it is cold -- even bitterly cold.

Many homeowners struggle with shaded areas, but as shade plants, bunchberry plants will thrive in these conditions, happily solving your problem for you. Wet-area plants are also in demand, and the plant fits the bill here, as well. Finally, finding cold-hardy plants in sufficient variety is certainly a problem that New Englanders and others who garden in cold climates can relate to, so bunchberry's ability to survive in zone 2 is sure to catch their attention. In fact, one could classify this ground cover as one best suited to the North and to coastal regions: It generally does not perform well where summers are very hot.

It will come as no surprise to native-plant landscaping enthusiasts that a wildflower that has grown out in the woods in their region for centuries may be the perfect solution to a landscaping challenge.

They would be quick to point out that this is, in part, what is so great about landscaping with native plants: namely, that you are working with specimens that have adapted to your part of the country. They have stood the test of time, without any help from gardeners.

Of course, not all native plants will necessarily be to your liking in the looks department. So what does bunchberry have going for it in terms of appearance? One should list two traits first and foremost:

  1. The "flowers," which are just as pretty as those on the more familiar dogwood trees.
  2. And, of course, with a common name like "bunchberry," you know that it has attractive berries, as well.

Moreover, because bunchberry spreads via rhizomes, it can naturalize and form a mass planting that will accentuate these two features (you need to mass small plants together to call sufficient attention to them). All of the above points argue the case that bunchberry could be a valuable shade ground cover (although not one that you could walk upon, as this is a delicate plant) for many Canadians and Americans, particularly those seeking native-plant alternatives.

Companion Plants for Bunchberry, Wildlife Associations

As you would expect, suitable companions for Cornus canadensis will be plants that grow well under similar conditions (shade, etc.)

This wild ground cover makes some think of Maine's Schoodic Peninsula (a U.S. national park that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean), where it can be seen in bloom in early June. Other native plants encountered there during this same season are twinflower (Linnaea borealis), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), and Northern blue flag (Iris versicolor). Twinflower would be a good companion plant for bunchberry in the woodland garden, since it likes the same conditions.

Bunchberry attracts butterflies but not deer and rabbit pests, being both a rabbit-proof flower and a deer-resistant perennial.

Continue Your Research

Need more information about the Cornus genus? See this article on dogwoods.

Need more choices for shady locations? See this article on the best perennials for shade.

Also consult these related articles:

  1. Native Perennial Shade Gardens
  2. Acid-Loving Plants