Canada’s (Unofficial) National Flower

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Did you know Canada doesn’t have a national flower (floral emblem)? Some 60 countries do, including the United States (the rose) and Australia (the golden wattle, Acacia pycnantha), while the United Kingdom has four: rose (England), daffodil (Wales), flax (Northern Ireland) and thistle (Scotland).

Two summers ago, for Canada’s 150th anniversary, a campaign took place to name a national flower and over 10,000 people placed a vote for … the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). It was certainly a wise choice, as it is one of the rare flowering plants found in all of the vast country’s provinces and territories. A petition was made to Parliament to officially name it, but it was unfortunately never approved. Darn! 

At the speed things go with governments, it may take another half-century before the choice is finally sanctioned.

So, on this day, July 1st, 2019, Canada’s 152nd anniversary, I, as a Canadian citizen and a gardener, have a suggestion. Why don’t we just make the bunchberry, our unofficial national flower? 

Lots of countries have an unofficial floral emblem: the Netherlands never officially named the tulip its national flower, but it is so considered by both Dutch nationals and the rest of the world. And ditto for the cherry blossom of Japan and the peony of China. So, don’t say it can’t be done!

I vote yea! And I bet a lot of other Canadians would join me!

Growing Canada’s (Unofficial) National Flower

This is not bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) but rather its tree-size relative, the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). The flowers are incredibly similar. Photo: http://www.vdberk.co.uk

The bunchberry or dwarf cornel (Cornus canadensis) is like an extreme dwarf version of the flowering dogwood (C. florida), a small tree. It has the same blooms, but at ground level. In fact, the stubby perennial is rarely more than 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) tall. In the wild, it makes up for its diminutive size by forming vast carpets in wooded areas, notably in the boreal (coniferous) forest. 

Each plant consists of a simple, unbranched stem coifed with a false whorl of 6 leaves (4 on younger specimens). The smooth-edged, distinctly veined leaves are shiny dark green in summer, purple to red in the fall and absent in winter.

It’s not one flower, but an inflorescence: a cluster of flowers surrounded by white bracts. Photo: http://www.adirondackalmanack.com

In late spring through early to mid-summer, depending on the climate, a dense cluster of small yellowish flowers appears on the top of the stem, surrounded by 4 creamy-white bracts. The flower cluster looks like a single flower and is seen as such by most people. Bumblebees, solitary bees and syrphid flies are the main pollinators.

Video: Science News

Bunchberry is one of the fastest plants on earth! When an insect touches a mature but unopened flower, the stamen jerks up at the speed of 24,000 meters a second, showering the creature with pollen. It requires a camera capable of shooting 10,000 frames per second to catch the action.

The berries are bright, beautiful, long-lasting and edible. Photo: http://www.florafinder.org

The flowers give way into a cluster of shiny green fruits (whence the name bunchberry) that turn bright red in the fall, a color that often lasts until winter. More than one clone is needed for fruit to be produced, though, as the flowers are essentially self-sterile. For that reason, it’s usually best to buy your plants from two different sources, as plants an any given nursery are usually produced by division and will all be clones. 

The berries (actually, drupes) are called cornels and are eaten by many birds, including thrushes and grouse, as well as small mammals. Humans too can eat the somewhat apple-flavoured fruits, but there isn’t much flesh around the fairly large seeds.

Bunchberry is a slow but steady grower, best adapted to cool, moist soils. Although it frequently grows in very acid soil in the wild, it does fine in slightly acid and neutral soils and will even tolerate slightly alkaline ones. It’s extremely tolerant of poor soil and thus rarely requires fertilizer.

Buncyberry’s fall color is quite remarkable. Photo: svseekins.wordpress.com

It’s essentially a forest dweller, putting up with the deep, year-round shade of conifers both in the wild and in gardens, although it’s more vigorous in partial shade. In the far north and in montane areas, it will grow in full sun, but it’s happier in shade in warmer climates. 

Bunchberry makes a great ground cover. Photo: newfoundland-labradorflora.ca

It spreads via underground rhizomes, but is very slow to fill in: if you want to create a groundcover effect rapidly, plant specimens 6 inches (15 cm) apart. 

Bunchberry is an extremely hardy plant, to zone 2 or even zone 1, but likes cool soil (below 65 °F/18 °C) at all times and therefore rarely thrives in climates warmer than zone 6 other than in deep shade. 

Also, it won’t tolerate foot traffic. Although it has few insect or disease problems, its leaves are a major food source for deer, moose and caribou in the wild. Curiously, deer and rabbits seem to ignore it in home gardens … probably because there are much tastier plants around, like your cabbages and hostas!

Bunchberry’s availability in garden centers can be spotty, but it’s widely available on the Internet. Look for nurseries specializing in shade plants, groundcovers or extra-hardy plants.


Bunchberry: Canada’s diminutive but beautiful unofficial national flower! Try growing it and see! 

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