Jeff Green | Apr 16, 2009
Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'lakes - April16, 2009 Leatherwoodby Steve Blight
There is a shrub that grows in the understory of the forest in the Land O’ Lakes area that I am very fond of. Called a leatherwood by many people, it also goes by the name of wicopy or moosewood. Its natural distribution extends from New Brunswick to Ontario in the north and from northern Florida to Louisiana in the south. It is found almost exclusively in rich, moist, hardwood forests and is usually rooted in rocky, sandy or loamy soils. In our part of Ontario, it is found most frequently in mature sugar maple and beech forests with high closed canopies that let in only small amounts of light. Some sources suggest it is very rare in forests that have a history of being grazed by cattle.
Dirca palustris, as it is known to botanists, is a small, very shade tolerant shrub that has the overall look of a dwarf tree. Usually less than about 6 feet (1.8 metres) tall, its main stem often divides low to the ground and develops a tree-like system of erect or ascending branches. Long lived and slow growing, it has stout, grayish-brown branches with a distinctly knobby look. One leatherwood shrub with a main stem diameter of 2 inches (5 cm) was aged at about 100 years old!
What I like most about this attractive shrub is its small, pale yellow flowers that emerge well before the leaves. They hang in pendulous clusters of 3 or 4 pale fragrant blooms that are easily overlooked. It is one of the first shrubs to flower in our area, often beginning in mid-April, usually blooming before the spring wildflowers blossom. I have strong memories of walking in the woods on cool, damp April mornings, delighted to see its delicate blossoms getting an early start on the serious business of reproduction.
Its fruit is an oval-shaped berrylike structure called a “drupe”, about 1 cm long. It is bright green at first before turning much paler and falling off soon after ripening in June. The fruit contains a single dark brown pit. The leaves are simple, alternate and deciduous. They are broadly oval in shape and light green in colour, and have smooth edges – i.e. no teeth.
The common name leatherwood refers not to the wood, but to the soft pliable bark. It is believed to have been extensively used by aboriginal people who cut it into long strips for bowstrings, baskets and fishing lines. Even the branchlets are remarkably pliable; I have tied thin leatherwood twigs into knots without breaking them in an effort to entertain tolerant friends and relatives.
The leatherwood is reported to be moderately toxic to people. It contains several poisonous chemicals that are most potent in the bark. Apparently chewing the bark – although I find it hard to see why a person might want to chew the bark – can cause severe burning in the mouth and can produce a nauseating taste. In addition, a type of dermatitis can occur when handling cut branches. However, I know that this plant is occasionally browsed by deer. I recall one weekend in early April checking the buds on a leatherwood plant in eager anticipation of its flowering, only to return a week later to see every branch that formerly had a flower bud on it coarsely chewed off – the tell-tale sign of deer browsing. I found myself hoping that the deer had regretted its choice of meal.
To see some great pictures of this delightful but little known plant, please visit this webpage: http://ontariotrees.com/main/species.php?id=2056.