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Bunchberry

This month, I’m highlighting some of PEI’s native wildflowers: showy, subtle, strange and – today’s example – sneaky! This is Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).


Photo 1: Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) carpets the ground in forests across PEI.

Bunchberry is common in forests across the Island, forming beautiful carpets in some areas (Photo 1). I’ve recently seen more than a few people misidentifying this plant as both Strawberry and Trillium (more info on PEI’s Trilliums here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/trilliums). This is a good example of ‘plant blindness’, the inability to see major differences between species. I mean no disrespect by this; we don’t know what we haven’t been taught and we do need to learn how to look at plants. In this case, compare what you see here with the three-parted leaves and five-petalled flowers of Strawberry or the three-leaved, three-petalled Trillium. Major differences.

 

More astute observers may notice Bunchberry’s resemblance to the Dogwoods. This is our only non-woody member of that family, our others being the native Red-Osier, Alternate-leaved, and Round-leaved Dogwoods. More on those in a future post; you can read more on our non-native Kousa Dogwood here: https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/kousa-dogwood.


Photo 2: Bunchberry flowerS: plural, because there are many tiny flowers here, surrounded by four petal-like bracts.

I like plants that aren’t what they seem, and Bunchberry is a good example.  You may think Photo 2 shows a single Bunchberry flower with four white petals, but that’s not the case. What look like flower petals are actually bracts – modified leaves – designed to attract pollinators to the many inconspicuous flowers on each plant. Each of those dots in the centre of the plant is one flower, and so this Bunchberry is supporting more than two dozen tiny florets. This becomes more obvious in fall when Bunchberry lives up to its name by producing bunches of red berries (Photo 3). Each berry developed from one pollinated flower, clearly showing how many were on the plant.


Photo 3: Bunchberry lives up to its name later in summer, when each pollinated flower turns into a red berry.

That’s sneaky, but Bunchberry has one more cool trick: ballistic pollen! I’ve written before about plants that use stored energy to explosively disperse their seeds (https://www.pei-untamed.com/post/spotted-touch-me-not).  Bunchberry uses a similar approach to toss its pollen about 2.5 cm (1 inch) into the air – high by plant standards. Each stamen (the part that holds the pollen) is bent back by the flower’s tiny petals like a miniature catapult. When the florets open, the stamens are released, and pollen is propelled upwards in a process that takes less than half a millisecond! (That’s even faster than the ballistic seed dispersal of Touch-me-not). Bunchberries use both wind and insect pollination, and so this energetic approach not only tosses the pollen higher in the air for the wind to catch it, but it also forcefully covers any passing insects

 

Bunchberry fruit is edible, but not palatable: I’d describe it as bland, dry, and seedy. I do use it to ‘top up’ recipes I am making with other, tastier wild fruit. If I don’t have quite the volume of berries I need, I’ll make up the difference with Bunchberries. They don’t change the flavour of the food and have the added benefits of being high in Vitamin C and pectin, which benefits jams and jellies in particular.

 

Bunchberry may look like just another woodland wildflower but looks can be deceiving on PEI untamed!

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