One of the smallest in its genus of mostly shrubs and trees, bunchberry dogwood is an excellent evergreen groundcover for sunny or shady areas. It spreads slowly by rhizomes to form colonies, adorning the ground with deeply veined green leaves, star-shaped white flowers in spring, and bunches of bright red berries in summer and fall. It thrives in acidic soils but tolerates a wide range of soil types and moisture conditions, and it grows well in any kind of light, from full sun to dense shade. It may not survive in standing water, but it will tolerate poorly drained and nutrient-poor soils. Bunchberry dogwood is listed as threatened in Ohio, but it occurs in some northern woodlands and a handful of sites in the northeast and southern parts of the state.
Bunchberry dogwood’s flowers use water pressure and a catapulting mechanism to propel their pollen, a process that encourages cross-pollination and is considered possibly the fastest movement in the plant world. Large pollinators such as bumble bees are able to force the flowers open, and the ejected pollen sticks to their body hair until it’s transferred to stigmas. When the flowers explode open on their own, the petals rapidly separate and flip back to release the stamens, which accelerate at a high speed to propel the pollen. The granules are launched to more than ten times the height of the flower, where they are carried away by the wind.
Bunchberry has several descriptive common names, such as creeping dogwood and dwarf dogwood. Its range extends through Canada, Alaska, and the northern US. It’s the national flower in Canada, where it’s known as Canadian bunchberry.
Native habitats include coniferous and mixed forests, wetlands, bogs, meadows, and thickets. Bunchberry dogwood is especially useful as a groundcover in woodlands or shade gardens along with natives such as twinflower, blue-eyed grass, and Northern blue flag iris.
Grows 6-8” tall and 24” wide.
Grows in full sun and full shade.
Grows in a wide range of soils and moisture conditions, including clay and sandy.
Tiny greenish flowers with 4 minute petals are surrounded by 4 petal-like white bracts. The flower head, which looks like a single white flower on a short stalk, is about 1” wide.
Shiny, dark green leaves are 1 ½-3” long with smooth edges, arcing veins, and points at the bases and tips. They grow in whorls of four to six.
Host plant for 111 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including io and crocus geometer moths (pictured here in order listed), and specialist moths bunchberry leaffolder and diamondback epinotia. The flowers attract butterflies and bees, and the fruits are eaten by song and game birds such as robins, ruffed grouse, vireos, and sparrows. Small mammals feed on the fruits and stems, and deer occasionally browse the foliage.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The Abnaki used an infusion of the leaves as a cathartic tea. The Hoh used the bark as a tonic, and the Iroquois consumed a decoction of the entire plant for coughs and fevers.
The fruits are edible though not especially tasty unless cooked into jams and jellies. Native Americans used the fruits in puddings and sauces, ate them raw, or dried them.
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