Bunchberry (Cornus canadenis,) also known as scarlet stoneberry, dwarf cornel, dwarf dogwood, puddingberry, pigeonberry, squirrel berry or cracker berry, is a low growing forest plant native to North America. Native Americans in northeastern Canada use bunchberry for food and call the bright red fruit “matagon.” The Chipewyan tribe called the useful plant “jikonaze” and the Cree people called the plant “pihew mina” or grouse berry.
The Cree also referred to the plant as “kawiskowimin” or itchy chin berry. When the berries are rubbed against the skin, they prompt an itchy skin reaction. The Ojibwe people made tea from the ground root to treat colic in infants. Traditional “wood’s wisdom” including using a tea from the roots of the bunchberry plant to treat “fits” or seizures, when combined in a tea with wintergreen, the plant was used to treat menstrual cramps and to prevent bed-wetting in young children.
In the Pacific Northwest, Native American tribes found a diverse array of uses for the plant and berries. The Quileute and Hoh tribes employed the berries in religious ceremonies, brewing an invigorating tonic from the bark. The Makah tribe used the berries for food and called them “bubkawak-tibupt” or fruit with stones. When ripe, the berries present a pulpy yellow flesh with a hard seed.
Many Native American tribal healers relied on bunchberry tea to treat colds and influenza. Different tribes gathered and dried bunchberry leaves and smoked them. Other burned the leaves and used the powered ash to treat topical sores, scrapes, burns and insect bites. Fresh bunchberry leaves were applied to cuts and open wounds to stop bleeding. The bunchberry has strong antibiotic, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties as was routinely used to treat coughs, fevers, stomach infections and kidney problems. Excessive ingestion of the berries produces a laxative effect. A few ripe berries, steeped in water were used as an appetite stimulant.
In spite of its plethora of names, the humble plant is an attractive low-growing ground cover resembling a miniature dogwood. If fact, it is a member of the dogwood (Cornaceae) family of plants. The prolific perennial grows from thin creeping rhizomes, carpeting the forest floor with a velvety deep green mat.
Bunchberry presents erect flowering stems with tiny “button-like” yellow flowers surrounded by white bracts. Bunchberry grows to a mature height of 3- to 6 inches. In late summer the fruit is a brilliant red berry. The tasty red berries provide food for birds and wildlife. The berries are a favorite food of songbirds, grouse, squirrels, marmots, chipmunks, deer and elk.
The charming little plant grows from Alaska to California, being especially abundant throughout western Canada. In the northeastern region of North America the tenacious ground cover can be found from Ontario to Maine and Pennsylvania. In western Canada the Canada bunchberry (Cornus unalaschkensis Ledeb) is predominant. The Canada bunchberry is slightly larger with a purplish tinge to the tips of the leaves. Bunchberry thrives in high acidic woodland soil, filling in bare spots where other plants cannot grow.
Hardy in USDA climate zones 2- through 7, bunchberry flourishes in cool, shady and moist locations, typically growing on the damp floor of coniferous forests. In mild coastal climates, the leaves are evergreen all year long. The plant can often be seen growing from decaying stumps or rotting logs. The delicate plant flowers in May or June, later at locations of high elevation. When the bracts fall during the summer, the berries start to form. Bunchberry often blooms a second time in early autumn.
In the home landscape, bunchberry is an effective and visually inviting ground cover around the base of trees and shrubs. Bunchberry grows well in heavy clay soils. It spreads readily and requires minimal care. Provide a thick layer of organic mulch and plenty of water. Bunchberry will soon establish in partial sunlight or shaded areas.
The fruit of the bunchberry plant is rather bland. It can be eaten raw or stew as a pudding. Bunchberry is typically mixed with other wild berries and used in pies, jellies, sauces and jams. Bunchberry is high in pectin and helps to thicken stewed concoctions of other types of fruit or berries.