1043 Dirca palustrisCommon Names: leatherwood, wicopy, ropebark Family: Thymelaeaceae (mezereum Family)
Leatherwood is a small, widely branched shrub that can get up to 8 ft (2.5 m) in height, but is usually quite a bit smaller. A typical specimen might be 4 ft (1.2 m) tall and the same width. As its name implies, the stems are soft, leathery and very pliable, yet still very strong. The stems can actually be tied into knots. The bark is fibrous and can be peeled off in strips and woven into twine. The deciduous leaves are elliptic, without teeth, and about 2-3 in (5-9 cm) long. In autumn the leaves may turn lemon yellow. The little pale yellow flowers are not particularly showy, but they are borne on bare stems before the leaves come out in late winter or early spring. The fruits are little greenish yellow berries.
Dirca palustris is native to eastern North America from Ontario and New Brunswick south to northern Florida. In Florida, the species occurs only on rich, wooded slopes in three counties along the Apalachicola River. There is a related, very similar, species that grows in moist evergreen forests in California.
CultureLight: Leatherwood does well in partial to nearly full shade. In the wild, leatherwood grows in the forest understory, where it develops an open, spreading habit. Grown in full sun, it becomes more compact and rounded. Specimens in full sun usually do not develop the intense yellow fall color. Moisture: Leatherwood grows well in humus-rich moist, but not constantly soggy, soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. Leatherwood flowers and young foliage are sometimes damaged by late spring freezes. Propagation: Seeds should be sown in autumn. They will require 2-3 months of cool weather before germinating. The plant also can be propagated by layering. Leatherwood seems to be quite difficult to propagate from cuttings.
Install a couple leatherwoods in a native woodland garden; they can take lots of shade. They can tolerate a pretty wet soil, too, and thrive along wooded streams. I love obscure native shrubs, and leatherwood is about as obscure as they get. I have found it at nurseries that specialize in native plants. The fall leaf color and peculiar late winter flowers are reason enough to seek out this rare oddity.
Native Americans weaved strips of the fibrous bark of leatherwood into cordage for bow strings, fishing line and baskets. They also used various infusions and decoctions of the bark and roots to treat a host of medical conditions.
The rather obscure mezeron family (Thymelaeaceae) includes some 50 genera and 700 species of trees, shrubs, vines and herbs found throughout the world, but mostly in Africa and Australia. Many are very poisonous, containing potent glycosides. Some, such as mezeron (Daphne spp.) have been used as herbal medicines. The bark of daphne is still used to treat snake bite and in veterinary medicine.
Presumably, leatherwood bark, berries and leaves are poisonous, although small amounts were formerly used as medicines by Native Americans. Check with your tribal medicine man before using.
Steve Christman 2/9/07; updated 3/4/17