Bunchberry – Cornus unalaschkensis


Plant of the Month

Cornus unalaschkensis – Bunchberry

Bunchberry is the smallest member of the dogwood family. A perennial trailing groundcover with 4 to 6 whorled leaves, bunchberry spreads rhizomatously along the forest floor. It prefers to grow in shade on a thick layer of woody duff in the moist forests or bogs of the western mountains. With 4 luminous white petal-like bracts surrounding a cluster of small flowers in the center, bunchberry blossoms in late spring and summer. In summer and fall, bunchberry develops a tight cluster of red berries borne in an upright spray an inch above the foliage. Songbirds enjoy these edible berries, and various Native American groups harvested them as a food source.

The narrowly ovate, pointed leaves of bunchberry feature prominent veins that curve and meet at the tip. In the winter, some of the semi-evergreen leaves turn red, adding color to the winter months. The plants themselves grow from 4 to 8 inches tall.

Bunchberry blossoms are the fastest-opening flowers in the world, producing a small explosion of pollen. The blossoms open in less than 0.4 milliseconds–less than the time it takes a bullet to travel the length of a rifle barrel.  The pollen’s initial acceleration is more than 2400 times the acceleration of gravity, producing 800 times greater force than astronauts experience during lift-off. This explosion launches the pollen 2.5 centimeters into the air, ten times the height of the flower! To watch a super-high speed video of a bunchberry flower opening, click here.

Thanks to our employee, the talented Sachiko Goode for providing this month’s illustration.