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.
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.
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.
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.
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.