Leatherwood a subtle but useful native shrub

Dirca palustris 4

One of my favourite native plants is leatherwood, Dirca palustris. It’s a modest shrub, easily overlooked in the shadowy understory of mature woodlands. That’s why I love it in this fast, brash, showy world. At the same time when spring narcissus burgeons in gardens, this useful plant does its things with nobody noticing.

Almost nobody, because here you are reading about it today. With your own brain you’re making the world a little wiser.

Dirca palustris 3

Why useful? The name leatherwood offers a clue. Its bark is extremely flexible. In a wilderness emergency it can be used for thongs to tie and make repairs.

Don’t try eating it. Leatherwood may be poisonous.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of its unpretentious summer foliage. Here’s a drawing, vintage but accurate.

Eastern leatherwood, Dirca palustris from Traité des Arbres et Arbustes que l’on cultive en France en pleine terre (1801–1819) by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Original from the New York Public Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

This early 19th Century illustration is provided by rawpixel, promoting the work of the Belgian botanical artist, Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Note the light green, simple leaves, lacking any teeth around the margins and with a rounded point. The bark is smooth and extremely tough. The shrub seldom grows taller than a person. It likes moist shady woods especially on a slope above a stream.

The genus Dirca has three or four species, all native to North America. It’s part of the fibre bark family, Thymelaeaceae, which appears around the world. Most species occur in the Southern Hemisphere, especially Africa.

Dirca palustris 1

What I love most about leatherwood is it’s one of the first botanical signs of spring in Ontario deciduous woodlands. It flowers before any other trees put out their leaves, even before most woodland wildflowers bloom. They have a subtle but surprising perfume.

The easiest way to find leatherwood is by its spring blossoms. It flowers along with the first spring beauties, Clatytonia virginica.

Claytonia virginica 2


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