Looking for a plant that is as anxious for spring to arrive as you are? Eastern leatherwood, Dirca palustris, is just what the doctor ordered.
This small, graceful tree sends out dozens of yellow bell-shaped flowers along its delicate network of branches in late winter and very early spring -- long before the leaves in the canopy above it leaf out and even before its own leaves emerge.
Photos copyright 2011 Ken Robinson
Dirca is native to a large swath of eastern North America from Ontario to the Appalachicola River in Florida, west to Missouri and Oklahoma. It is frequently found on rich wooded slopes, along stream banks and on the margins of swamps. Part of its Latin name, "palustris", refers to its love of swampy environs.
This is a plant that is right at home in a woodland landscape. It loves the full shade of deciduous trees, and needs a rich soil that is consistently moist but never soggy. Because it is a slow grower reaching heights of only 4 to 6 feet, leatherwood is the perfect addition to the smaller landscape. It shines as a specimen or when grown as a mass planting. One of leatherwood's definite benefits is its deer resistance.
Eastern leatherwood has small, rounded, light-green leaves that turn a lovely shade of yellow in fall. Its jointed branches give it an interesting winter appearance. Its golden-brown bark takes on a decidedly yellow aspect just before flowering.
Dirca was a plant well-known and used by Native Americans. Its soft, pliable branches and very strong bark gave it the common names leatherwood and ropewood. These are clues to one of the most interesting features of the plant. It has amazingly limber branches that bend rather than break under the worst of conditions. Its bark is so tough that is was used by Native Americans as bow strings, to weave baskets, and as fishing line. Native Americans also used small amounts of the plant as medicine. However, all parts of leatherwood are toxic and should be handled with care.