Now here’s a line you don’t hear every day: “Bunchberry has been in the news this week!” Yes it’s true, and although you may not recognize the name, you’ve likely seen bunchberries if you’ve ever hiked through a Canadian forest in late spring (small, upward-facing white flowers) or in autumn (red berries atop burgundy leaves). It’s a truly lovely forest groundcover.
The Canada 150 celebrations have sparked many new initiatives, and it occurred to one Canadian gardener that although we have 13 outstanding provincial and territorial flowers, Canada itself doesn’t have a national floral emblem. So an online poll was organized, and votes were cast to select Canada’s national flower. Last week, 10,000 participants declared the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, Zone 2) the winner. I was puzzled by this choice of a relatively unknown dogwood sub-shrub, and wondered why the competition had been restricted to the small handful of plants that are native to every province and territory.
The United States didn’t have a national flower until 1986 when Ronald Reagan named “the rose” as America’s national emblem, but what rose, and where does it grow? Some countries — like Canada and Ireland — have familiar botanical emblems (the maple leaf and the shamrock), but don’t have official flowers per se. Other countries have more than one horticultural emblem: Portugal has five: (cork oak, hydrangea, lavender, olive and red carnation) followed by Macedonia with three (opium poppy, tobacco and wheat).
So for many much smaller countries, floral emblems apparently need not necessarily be widespread or even native. But in a country as large and climatically diverse as Canada, this restriction of “must grow everywhere” seems particularly limiting. And while bunchberries may have a presence in every province and territory, they don’t flourish in the heat of Zones 6 to 8, putting them firmly out of reach for some of Canada’s keenest gardeners.
Bunchberries are essentially a plant of our coniferous forest floors, and demand an acidic soil if they are to thrive (in the wild, a soil pH level of 4.0 is not unusual). And unless they’re situated in a blueberry bog — where they’re considered a weed by berry growers — they’re happiest in the year-round shade cast by evergreens. In perfect conditions, individual plants may grow more than 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, spreading slowly via their creeping underground rhizomes.
But in the average home garden, bunchberries can be the very devil to grow. As Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow write in their encyclopaedic Dogwoods (2005), “Culture of bunchberry is one of those enigmas in the gardening world. Surely with [its] diversity, the plant should be adaptable to a wide range of garden conditions. Alas, once again, Mother Nature has thrown us a knuckleball. As it turns out, outside its natural range, the plant is an absolute beast to grow.” And so it is — which is why it’s almost impossible to find bunchberry at most nurseries.
And production presents another problem: Plants grown from seed (or cuttings) collected in one region of the country are unlikely to thrive in another region. Local populations are adapted to seasonal precipitation and temperature patterns as well as soil types and exposure.
Cornus canadensis is one of many plants that bear the specific epithet (species name) that means “of Canada.” Other plants (such as Aquilegia canadensis and Asarum canadense) were also given the same specific epithet by botanically minded Jesuit missionaries in Quebec in the early 17th century. But this is by no means any guarantee of exclusivity, and when Linnaeus (1707-78) officially named the plant a century later, he described its natural distribution as “circumboreal,” meaning that bunchberry is indigenous to boreal forests (or Taiga) across the northern hemisphere.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: In addition to being indigenous to every Canadian province and territory, Cornus canadensis is also native to the U.S. as far south as the Carolinas (at high altitudes) — as well as to Russia, China, the Koreas, Japan and Greenland.
I would have preferred the nomination of a species that’s native to most of Canada, which would have widened the list of candidates considerably. And I’d have chosen one that’s available at nurseries and that isn’t “an absolute beast” to grow in a typical Canadian garden.
As for the bunchberry becoming Canada’s official flower, it still has several Department of Canadian Heritage hoops to jump through before it’s green-lighted, and given the Canada grey jay’s wobbly flight path toward federal recognition, there’s probably still time to go back to the floral emblem drawing board.
Share your thoughts
What flower would you nominate as Canada’s national floral emblem?