This attractive, deciduous shrub is named for its incredibly pliable and useful stems and bark. It’s often found alongside spicebush in the understory of forests. Both shrubs have yellow blooms that offer early-season sustenance for bees, and the foliage of both plants turns yellow in the fall. Leatherwood is hardy and maintenance free, growing 4 to 6 feet tall and wide with a dense, yet delicate, appearance. The long-lived plant thrives in part or full shade and a wide range of average to very moist soils. As the scientific name suggests, dry conditions should be avoided. Dirca comes from the Greek word “dirka,” meaning “a fountain,” and palustris is Latin for “swampy, or of wet places.” Leatherwood blooms as early as March with small clusters of bell-shaped, pale-yellow flowers that are soon followed by the emergence of yellowish-green leaves with an underside of fuzz. The egg-shaped leaves lose their hair and become darker green and then bright yellow as they mature. Leatherwood's young twigs have enlarged nodes that form flat rings, which give the twigs a jointed appearance. These twigs are so pliable that they can be tied into a knot without breaking. The berry-like drupes are toxic to humans, but birds enjoy eating them.
Native habitats include bottomland woods, wooded slopes, and the banks of streams and creeks. Plant as a hedge, in rain or shade gardens, as an understory shrub in woods, along ponds or streams, and in naturalized areas.
Grows 4-6’ tall and wide.
Prefers part sun or full shade. Full sun may scorch the foliage.
Prefers rich, moist, slightly acidic soils but adapts to sandy or clay. Dislikes dry soils.
Narrow, yellow flowers emerge from hairy buds on 1-year-old twigs. Flowers are up to ¼” long with 4 shallow lobes and 8 long, white stamens with yellow-orange tips. Green, ½”, oval-shaped drupes mature to purplish red in early summer. Each drupe contains one shiny, black seed.
Leaves are egg shaped, oval, or nearly diamond shaped; 1 ½-3” long; and toothless. The color changes from yellowish green in spring to medium green in summer and yellow in fall.
Older bark is gray or brown, leathery, and mostly smooth or somewhat roughened near the base.
Host plant to larvae of Harris’s three-spot butterfly. Leatherwood is of the order Malvales, which hosts 23 species of Lepidoptera. Many bees visit for nectar and pollen, including little carpenter, cuckoo, mason, halictid, plasterer, and andrenid. Mourning cloak butterflies have been observed drinking the nectar.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
An infusion of the bark was used as a diuretic, and an infusion of the root was used for pulmonary issues.
Native Americans used the twigs and bark to make bow strings, baskets, fishing line, and cordage.
Caution: some people have allergic reactions to contact with plant parts. The bark, fruits, and roots of this shrub are toxic.
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