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In the lives of gardeners there are some plants that are so beautiful and special that they are worth the extra effort they may take to establish or care for; can be forgiven their idiosyncrasies and neediness in the face of the simple pleasure they bring. Cornus canadensis should be high on this list.
Known as Bunchberry, it is the other common name - Creeping Dogwood - that more clearly describes its appearance: the oval, pointed, slightly ridged leaves, the four single white bracts surrounding a purplish-green cluster of tiny flowers that at first glance look like the petals of a flower themselves. It's the classic dogwood, only in miniature and on a groundcover that tops out at only six inches tall. Lovely and pristine, it is like a jewel in the shade or woodland garden.
Spreading by shallow, underground runners, it is a lovely companion for ferns and other moist-woods inhabitants. The flowers are followed by clusters (or more name-accurate, "bunches") of bright red berries that will attract birds to your garden. Fall and winter foliage will turn reddish-purple, and is semi-evergreen.
Very little bothers the groundcover dogwood in the way of pests and diseases.
And that's the good news. The bad news is that Cornus canadensis is hard to get established. Really hard. The moment I write this I know we're going to get emails from folks who had a ridiculously easy time of it and have no idea what I'm talking about. Congratulations I say, but I think you are the exception and not, I fear, the rule. It's not impossible however (and remember I said how worth the effort it is?).
So why is it so difficult, when it can be found in the woods in lush swaths? Because it seems to need more specific conditions than most in order to be happy: Shade or dappled sun; gritty, humus-y, acidic soil; lots of moisture. This one will grow in wet conditions. In garden settings it's often the summer dryness that does it in.
Many gardeners place chunks of rotting wood in the bottom of the planting hole for their bunchberry, so the roots can find the compatible fungus and other goodies that helps them thrive (even better if it's something they grow naturally beneath). In the wild, C. canadensis can be found growing in and around fallen "nurse logs" and in the mossy joints of tree branches.
And yes, one year I had a four-inch container that I forgot to plant, and it sat out all winter. And it survived. Go figure. I finally put it in the ground, in what I hoped would be the perfect spot. We'll see.
Oh go ahead, try it. It isn't the pickiest plant you'll ever encounter, but it sure is one of the prettiest.
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Common names: Bunchberry, Creeping Dogwood
Native Range: Native throughout Canada and the northern half of the United States. On the west coast, native to Washington and Oregon's low to high-elevation forests.
Characteristics: Low-growing groundcover spreading by shallow rhizomes, growing approximately 8" tall. Has the classic dogwood leaf and flower, except in miniature: Whorls of bright green, broad and pointed leaves that turn yellow to orange to red in fall, tiny clusters of green with purple flowers surrounded by white bracts that are often mistaken for the petals. In summer, flowers are followed by red to red-orange berries.
Culture: Grows best in cool, moist, acidic soils, in full to partial shade. Shallow roots cannot withstand summer heat/dry and soil temperatures above sixty-five degrees, and will not thrive in alkaline soil.
Pests/Diseases: None noted.