Bunchberry is a native of mid- to northern North America.
Identification: Bunchberry (which has many other
not all of which are listed here) rarely exceeds 8″ (20 cm) in height. It is the smallest member
of the dogwood family. It has alternate pairs of oval leaves, oriented for maximum
exposure, to sop up the light on the dappled forest floors it favors. I often see these plants in
large, almost continuous mats. The four white "flower petals" are really bracts—modified leaves.
They surround the real flowers, a tiny cluster of greenish flowers. The flowers grow into a dense
group of bright red berries (the "bunch"). The low growth (often just two inches), orderly leaf clusters,
and bright red closely packed berries are identifiers.
The flower structure forms a powerful, spring-loaded launch facility for the pollen, a unique
mechanism among flowering plants, as described by its discoverer, Dr. Ted Mosquin:
Then with dissecting needles I began opening one of the buds, only to discover that it seemed to transform itself in a fraction of a second into a fully open flower. I turned to a second bud, opened it and found four normal-looking, fully developed, undehisced anthers. I tried a third and was again surprised by what appeared to be a tiny explosion and what seemed like a small amount of pollen flying in all directions. I realized then that I might be looking at a unique phenomenon-perhaps never before witnessed by humans and perhaps undescribed. It was then that I began to pay more attention to another unusual characteristic of each flower. On the abaxial side and near the tip of one of the four petals of each unopened flower and projecting upward was a miniature "antenna" just over one mm long. It did not take long to establish that even the slightest touch of the dissecting needle to the antenna of any "ready to pop" flower would trigger the explosive mechanism; the petals would reflex, the anthers would spring out simultaneously like four tiny catapults and shoot their entire pollen loads into the air above the inflorescence.
Edibility: Ripe berries are edible, though they contain a hard
seed and are fairly tasteless. They can be cooked into puddings.