Native plants

The Bunchberry, Jewel of the Undergrowth

Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le soleil on June 13, 1988.

It’s in the nature of gardeners to seek out exotic plants from the four corners of the globe. Quebec flowerbeds and gardens are filled with plants from Asia, Europe, South America, even Africa and Australia.

But sometimes, our research can lead us in circles. Because, if you’re wondering which plant would be ideal to form a beautiful carpet of greenery in the shade… The list of foreign contenders is long. Unfortunately, none of them is the winner.

Small periwinkle (Vinca minor) and Japanese pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis) are very beautiful, but lack the hardiness to grow well in sites exposed to our winter winds (on top of being considered invasive in certain areas). English ivy (Hedera helix) is even less hardy, and even its most cold-hardy cultivar, ‘Baltica’, only does well where there’s excellent winter snow cover.

Japanese Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). Photo : David J. Stang

Too invasive, or not enough

Other ground cover plants make nice carpets, all right. But they’re far too invasive. Such is the case with dead-nettles (Lamium and Galeobdolon), lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), all of foreign origin.

Conversely, European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum) and barrenwort (Epimedium) may not spread enough: they need to be planted very densely to achieve complete coverage… and, even then, it takes several years before the entire surface is covered.


And yet, among our native plants, we have a species that is perhaps the ideal ground cover for undergrowth and other places where sunlight is scarce: the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis). It can be found in abundance throughout Quebec, Canada and the Northern United States in coniferous and mixed forests, even where shade is densest. It also thrives in hardwood undergrowth, and wherever the sun is conspicuous by its absence.

Photo : JohnHarvey

Small is beautiful

Bunchberry is a true ground cover in every sense. It has no desire to grow tall like most plants. It simply skims the ground at a height of 10 to 15 cm. Each plant bears just four to six shiny, dark-green leaves with prominent veins and, with their small size, is hardly noticeable when grown in isolation.

Fortunately, it produces an abundance of creeping underground stems that run, slowly but surely, in all directions, and a colony quickly develops from one or two pots. The leaves blush prettily in autumn, so it would be a very attractive plant even if it didn’t flower… but the bunchberry does flower prettily, for almost a month in spring.

Each “flower” is actually an inflorescence made up of small, uninteresting greenish flowers, surrounded by four (sometimes five or six) beautiful white bracts. When the bracts fall off, they are replaced by small, bright-red fruits that last until autumn, when the foliage begins to turn red. So the plant always has something interesting to show off, from early spring to snowfall. The fruits are edible and, while not particularly tasty, are easy to eat. Personally, I prefer to leave them in place to enjoy the beautiful effect they create.

Photo : Sten Porse

Easy to Grow

All it needs to grow well is a little neglect. After all, it’s not one of those plants that likes to be pampered. Plant it in rich or poor soil, preferably under a thick mulch of dead leaves, water it a little the first year, weed by hand if necessary: that’s all there is to it.

For quick coverage, use 12 plants per square metre (1 per square foot): they’ll quickly fill the space. Or buy four or five plants and divide them every autumn. This plant is particularly fond of dead leaves that fall on it, as their accumulation produces a rich, moist forest litter in which it proliferates. So you won’t even need to rake leaves in the autumn in your undergrowth filled with bunchberries.

Source : Flore du Québec

In the Sun Too

Although it grows in the shade in the wild, it can also be cultivated in the sun, but you have to make sure it never runs out of water, otherwise it can burn. And there’s no need to worry about the cold getting the better of this plant: in the wild, it can be found right up to the northern tree line, and is therefore perfectly hardy even in zone 1. It can be found in every Canadian province and territory, as well as in the northern United States. The only regions where it is not found are those with arid or excessively hot climates.

In addition to division, bunchberry can be propagated by seed: either in autumn, directly in the forest litter. Some seeds will germinate in the spring, but most require two successive periods of cold to germinate, and will therefore appear in the spring of the second year. Seedlings will mature and begin to flower after around three years.

Where to Admire It?

Want to see the effect of the bunchberry with your own eyes? Go to almost any forest in Canada and discover it in all its beauty, in late May and June in the South; in late June and into August in colder regions.

The bunchberry: a jewel of a native plant that’s perfect for any shady garden or undergrowth.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

6 comments on “The Bunchberry, Jewel of the Undergrowth

  1. Paulette Woods

    All of you who keep up with this site are appreciated. I anticipate it and gain dinosaur game knowledge from it every day.

  2. Christine Lemieux

    I just brought home a tray from a local native plant sale! (And a lot more things) I am looking forward to watching them spread. I really enjoy this blog.

  3. thanks for this post – helpful for my shady garden

  4. Peg Pahti

    Would these lovelies help to squelch undesirables, specifically horsetail ferns

  5. Thank you to all of you who continue this blog! I look forward to it and learn something from it every day.

  6. As Larry said these are underutilized and beautiful little plants. Sometimes we can’t see what is right out our own back door.

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