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Close-up of the showy white flower of bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis). One of 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.
A lush patch of bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) with bright red fruits, growing among twinberry and wild strawberry. One of 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.
White-flowering bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) growing in the wild with twinberry, false lily of the valley and fairybells. One of 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.
White flowering bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) growing on dead wood. One of 100+ species of Pacific Northwest native plants available at Sparrowhawk Native Plants nursery in Portland, Oregon.

Bunchberry

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Cornus unalaschkensis

Bunchberry is a darling groundcover in the dogwood family. Its green, glossy leaves emerge each spring, followed by an exceptionally showy, four “petaled” creamy white flower that attracts pollinators to the shade garden. Interestingly, these “petals” are actually “floral bracts” and upon closer inspection, you’ll be delighted to see a cluster of tiny flowers at the center. In fall, the leaves turn a rusty hue and the flowers evolve into a tight little bunch of bright red berry-like drupes that are food for backyard birds.

  • Plant type/canopy layer: deciduous perennial herbaceous plant
  • Size at maturity: 1”-4” tall, 3”-8” wide
  • Light requirements: part to full shade
  • Moisture requirements: moist soil, may require moderate summer water 
  • Bloom time: May - Aug (May - July in Portland Metro area)
  • Growth rate/ease: can grow and spread quickly and easily in the right conditions
  • Wildlife support: attracts and provides nectar for adult butterflies, bees and other insect pollinators, caterpillar host plant and larval food source
  • Native habitat/range: common in moist forests west of the Cascades as well as shady bogs, fens and wetlands from sea level to 1800 m. From northern CA, north to Alaska. Portland Plant List - yes.
  • Special features & uses: landscape uses include groundcover in shady pollinator gardens and woodland gardens. Traditionally, the Bella Coola, Haisla and Hanaksiala peoples (of British Columbia) eat ripe berries mashed with sugar and oolichan grease and dried them for winter use.

Gardening with Bunchberry: Bunchberry will make an absolutely charming semi-evergreen groundcover in special, moist and humus-rich areas of your shade garden. Be sure to work lots of rotting bark, wood, etc. into the soil when planting - and to leave fallen fall tree and shrub leaves on the ground for the nutrients and acidity. In its natural habitat, it is common to see bunchberry growing on nurse logs in luxurious old-growth areas of the forest. Given these types of conditions, it spreads wonderfully by runners and seeds. If you’re lucky, it may even bloom twice a year (late spring and again in late summer). 

Photo Credit 1: Nikkie West, Sparrowhawk Native Plants

Photo Credits 2 & 4: "Cornus unalaschkensis" by gertjanvannoord is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Photo Credit 3: "Bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis) Olympic National Forest" by Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.