Leatherwood is an early blooming native deciduous shrub of the Woodland Garden; a shrub that grows to nine feet tall with smooth gray-brown bark and forms a rounded crown.
Twigs are smooth, yellowish-green and have many joints as shown in photo below. Buds have 3 to 4 scales that are covered with fine brown hair.
Leaves: The oval/elliptic leaves fully appear after the flowers have matured; they have fine hair when young but none later, are alternate with a smooth edge. Leaf stalks are very short. They are usually the first native shrub leaves to unfold in the spring. Fall color is yellow.
The inflorescence is a terminal cluster and axillary clusters of 2 or 3 pendant flowers along the twig that appear as the leaf buds are breaking.
Flowers: The pale yellow flowers lack petals. The calyx is tubular shaped and can be either unlobed or with 4 to 5 visible lobes. The margins of those lobes can have shallow crenations or just be wavy. The flower has 8 protruding stamens that have white filaments and yellow anthers. The stamens form two whorls inside the calyx with one whorl opposite the lobes and the other whorl alternate (in between) the lobes. There is also a prominent style that is longer than the stamens.
The fruit is a small elongated drupe, pale green at first, changing to purplish-red before dropping and bearing a single pit. The drupe can be up to 1/2 inch long but this varies considerably with location.
Toxicity: See notes below.
Habitat: Leatherwood grows in rich soils in moist woods, forming its best shape in partial sun, becoming rather leggy in full shade. Too much sun burns the foliage. It is a slow growing plant. The Garden has one fine specimen plant that is now well over eight feet high and grows next to the large boulder that holds the Memorial Tablet to Eloise Butler, which is located in front of the Martha Crone Visitor Shelter. Several others grow near the Shelter.
Names: The genus Dirca is from the Greek word dirke, for 'fountain' coming from the Greek mythological Dirce who was transformed by Dionysus into a fountain. The name is applied to the early flowering North American woodland shrubs in the Thymelaeaceae family, no others of which are in Minnesota. The species palustris, means 'marsh loving'. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
The alternate common names have to do with the strength and flexibility of strips of the inner bark. The name 'wicopy' is similar in that it refers to the flexibility and utility of the inner bark. The word is probably an adulteration of one of the Algonquian language words such as wi-kpǝy of the Delaware, wigǝbi of the Western Abenaki or wi-kop of the Ojibwa. The Cree word is wikupiy.
Above: The Leatherwood shrub next to the boulder holding the memorial plaque of Eloise Butler. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Above: The flowers emerge with the new leaves. The calyx lobes form a tube with separation of the lobes, but some plants may show 4 or 5 separate lobes. Petals are absent.
Below: 1st photo - The buds have 3 to 4 scales that are covered with soft brown hair. 2nd photo - Note the many joints on a twig.
Below: 1st photo - Leaves are oval/elliptic with a smooth margin, fine hair when young. 2nd photo - The small elongated drupe in the green stage.
Notes: Eloise Butler first noted planting this species on April 29, 1912 with 2 plants obtained from Gillett's Nursery, Southwick, MA, although she later found it locally as she explains in this article. Martha Crone planted in 1947 and the plant was listed on Martha Crone's 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time and on subsequent Garden census. It is native to Minnesota in a number of scattered counties east of a diagonal line running from Fillmore in the SE corner to Becker in the NW. In North America it occurs in the Eastern half, i.e. from Minnesota eastward in the U.S.
Toxicity: It is reported by a number of authorities that the leaves and stems contain calcium oxalate crystals and therefore would cause skin irritation and blisters. Most believe this would not be severe but one is advised to wear leather gloves when handling the plant.
Lore: The bark is smooth and very pliable but so tough that it can hardly be broken by the hand. Native Americans used it for weaving, bow strings and fish lines. An infusion of the bark was considered a diuretic; and an infusion of the root was used for pulmonary troubles. Densmore (Ref. #5), in her study of the Minnesota Chippewa, quotes a Chippewa woman. . . "Cut up the stalk and dry it, pulverize, put about a tablespoon in warm water, steep but do not let it boil, do not eat after taking it. Green stalk may be chewed." This was taken internally as a physic (a purge). Densmore also reports a decoction of the root was used as a wash to strengthen hair. It is not a plant for the home garden when deer are expected as they eat the twigs and buds.
Martha Crone wrote: "This is one of the most hardy and easily grown shrubs and can be planted in various situations in home landscaping. It is the first shrub to unfold its leaves in the spring. The small pale yellow flowers appear even earlier sometimes in March. The fruit is a red oval-shaped drupe. This symmetrical shrub seldom exceeds 4 feet in height, growing native in woods [it] therefore will tolerate shade. Altho this family has about 37 genera and 460 species widely distributed, only two species of one genus occur native in the United States. One in California [Dirca occidentalis A. Gray] and Dirca palustris in this area. The bark and twigs of this shrub are exceeding tough and pliable and cannot be broken.” Published in The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 7 #1, January 1959. [NOTE: It has since been established that a third species exists - Dirca decipiens, known as Ozark Leatherwood. This was classified in 2009.]
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"