Thursday, July 5, 2012


Bunchberry -- © Dave Spier

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, subgenus Chamaepericlymenum) is essentially a miniature Flowering Dogwood, hence its nickname, Dwarf Dogwood or Dwarf Cornel.

What look like white petals are actually bud scales or bracts. They surround a dense cluster of tiny flowers, each with its own set of four yellow petals that nearly require a magnifying glass. What's unusual is the speed with which each flower opens. The highly-elastic petals snap back to release spring-loaded stamens which then catapult the pollen into the air. The plant generally blossoms in June, but sometimes later.

The flowers and later the fruits are held on a stem above a whorl of generally six strongly-veined leaves (two large plus four smaller ones growing from the axils). The leaf veins converge again toward the pointed tips in typical dogwood fashion. Unlike its woody relatives, the herbaceous Bunchberry dies back to its roots and rhizomes at the end of the growing season.

Bunchberry prospers in acidic soils over an extremely wide elevation range from low swamps through moist, intermediate forests to high alpine zones on Mt. Marcy. It has a wide geographic range across Alaska, all of Canada, the northern states and down through the Rockies, but it doesn't stop there. Bunchberry is also found in the montane and boreal zones of China, Russia and Japan

Look for its clusters of bright scarlet-red "berries" (actually drupes) from mid-August through September. They are edible, but considered tasteless. Eat them raw or cook like a pudding or make the fruits into jelly. Birds (grouse, veery, vireos, etc.) also eat the fruits and deer browse the perennial plants that often grow in clonal colonies.

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