Dirca palustris (Leatherwood)
|Also known as:||Eastern Leatherwood|
|Life cycle:||perennial woody|
|Habitat:||part shade, shade; average to moist soil; rich deciduous woods, ravines, wooded slopes, wooded bluffs, river bottoms|
|Bloom season:||April - May|
|Plant height:||3 to 6 feet|
|Wetland Indicator Status:||GP: FAC MW: FAC NCNE: FAC|
|MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):|
|National distribution (click map to enlarge):|
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Clusters of 2 to 6 flowers (usually 3) arise from hairy buds on 1-year-old twigs, emerging before the leaves in early spring. Flowers are pale yellow, narrowly tubular with 4 shallow lobes, ¼ to 1/3 inch long. Protruding from the tube are 8 long, white stamens with yellow-orange tips and a slender, white style that elongates beyond the stamens. The hairy bud scales persist until the flowers fade.
Leaves and stems:
Leaves are alternate, 1½ to 3 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide, toothless, egg-shaped to oval to nearly diamond-shaped in outline, often widest above the middle, usually blunt at the tip, and stalkless to short-stalked. Surfaces are usually hairless, though the undersides may be woolly-hairy when young and a few hairs may persist especially along the veins.
New twigs are mostly hairless, green turning red-brown to gray-brown the second year, and have distinctive enlarged nodes that form a flat ring around the bud and give the twig a jointed appearance. Twigs are very flexible and virtually unbreakable. Older bark on larger branches and the trunk is gray to brown, leathery, smooth or somewhat rough near the base. Stems are usually single, up to 3 inches diameter at the base, and many-branched from near the base with a crown about as wide as tall.
Leatherwood is a fitting common name, since the bark and twigs are tough but extremely flexible. Minnesota is at the western edge of its range. It is one of the most shade-tolerant shrubs and can thrive under a dense forest canopy, though it also performs well in a sunnier landscape. Queen bees pollinate the flowers in early spring and the fruit is mature by early summer. It is not easily confused with any other species. While the leaves may resemble any number of woody species, the jointed twigs that are so pliable they can be tied in a knot without breaking is a pretty diagnostic characteristic. But beware that it can also cause contact dermatitis.
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Where to buy native seed and plants ↓
- Leatherwood plant
- Leatherwood flowering in early spring
- Leatherwood in a residential landscape
- twigs are very flexible, look jointed with enlarged nodes
- early leaves may be hairy
- later leaves are mostly smooth
- leaves emerge as flowers fade
- close-up of flowers
Photos by K. Chayka taken at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, Hennepin County, and Vermillion Falls, Dakota County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin and Hennepin counties.
Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?