The bunchberry (cornus canadensis or chamaepericlymenum canadense) is a small, shade-loving deciduous plant that grows near the Pacific coast of North America. It is also known as dwarf dogwood, puddingberry, pigeonberry, dwarf cornel and crackerberry. The pigeonberry name comes from the New England area, where bunchberry fruit has been used as an ingredient in plum pudding. The pigeonberry name is probably related to the fact that it was a major source of nourishment for the passenger pigeon, which became extinct more about a century ago.
The bunchberry plant grows in moist, acidic soil in the shadow of coniferous trees, although it has also been found in stumps. Bunchberry plants generally do not cluster. The plant reaches 18 inches (50 centimeters) in height. It is distinguished by a circular arrangement of four to six leaves that have an oval shape and only a few major veins. The leaves are green on top and whitish underneath early in the plant's life cycle in the spring and turn reddish or purple when dying in the fall.
The bunchberry flowers in May or June. In the middle of the leaf arrangement are four to six bracts, or modified leaves. These are white and reach about one-eighth of an inch (25 millimeters) in length. In the very middle of the bract arrangement is a tiny, barely visible true flower that is also white. After pollination the flower is replaced by a cluster of reddish berries about an eighth of an inch in diameter. The bunchberry does not require assistance to pollinate, squirting its pollen up in the air and having it distributed by the wind. The berries are eaten by birds and small animals and the seeds contained in the berries scattered in their droppings to enable the plant to reproduce.
Bunchberries are found from Alaska in the north to California in the south, mostly in dense deciduous forests. Some Native American tribes ate bunchberries while others considered the taste unpleasant and avoided them. The roots have been used as a laxative, the bark as a treatment for colds, and the berries as an anti-inflammatory or analgesic. The berries feel hairy when rubbed against the skin.
Bunchberry plants can be cultivated if planted in humus-heavy soil and kept in the shade. Mulch of pine needles is recommended.
The bunchberry has a relative west of the Rocky Mountains called the western bunchberry (cornus unalaschkensis), which has purple-tinged bracts and slightly larger flowers.