Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Wildflower Wednesday: Dirca palustris, An Underused/Underappreciated Woodland Beauty

Honestly, I was worried that there would be no flowers on Dirca palustris this year after the December flash freeze. Also, worrisome was a friend's loss of his decade old Leatherwood to a fungus. Long time readers know that I rushed outside to make sure the shrub was okay. Geez Louis, was I relieved that it was doing fine.

In case that has you wondering about  the shrub's hardiness, it's a very cold-hardy plant, being able to tolerate temperatures down to around -22°f when fully dormant. The flowers are produced in early spring, however, and are very likely to be damaged when the plant is grown in regions with late frosts. (source)

Despite my worry, it bloomed right on schedule.

Leatherwood does not burst into bloom. The small bell-shaped pale lemon-yellow flowers with their long bright yellow stamens bloom in clusters slowly open along the branches before the leaves emerge. 

It makes a lovely show for our mid south late and very brown winter (mid February).

Dirca palustris is an early blooming deciduous native shrub. It can be found in rich, moist, neutral soil in woodlands scattered (meaning uncommon) over much of eastern North America. The small yellow flowers first appear in mid February in my middle Tennessee garden and continue into early spring just in time for small bees to stop by for nectar and pollen.

small critter on flower

 If Lindera benzoin (Spicebush) is happy in your garden conditions, then you can grow Leatherwood.  They may be found near one another in woodlands and forest settings. I need to check when I walk at Radnor Lake to see if Leatherwood is growing near the Spicebush that is so happy there. 

 Leatherwood and Spicebush share similar characteristics:

  • bloom time (might be more evident further north)
  • yellow flower color
  • leaf shape
  • blooming in deep shade
  • red fruit
  • lovely yellow fall leaf color.

There are numerous documented medicinal uses of Dirca by Native Americans. Also both stems and leaves are made into fibers for paper, rope and basket making. (source) Here's a quote from  that explains why it was useful. "The stems of leatherwood have relatively little lignin and very light wood, so they are surprisingly flexible and have been used in cordage (rope-making) and basketry, notably by Native Americans, who also used it for sandals and to sew up bark canoes. American settlers used it as a withe — a strong, flexible twig used as a band to bind things together." (source)


I especially like this from Missouri Department of Conservation: Henry David Thoreau saw Leatherwood for the first time on September 7, 1853, and wrote about it in his journal: “I was much interested in this shrub, since it was the Indian’s rope. Frost said that the farmers of Vermont used it to tie up their fences. . . . I should think it would be worth the while for the farmers to cultivate [leatherwood] for this purpose. How often in the woods and fields we want a string or rope and cannot find one. This is the plant which Nature has made for this purpose. . . . I feel as if I had discovered a more indigenous plant than usual, it was so peculiarly useful to the aborigines.”



My first plant was a gift from a good friend. I was thrilled to get it and planted it in a shady spot where the soil had been improved with fallen leaves. It's one of the few places in the garden where the soil doesn't turn to concrete in the heat of the summer. Phacelia bipinnatifida and Hydrophyllum macropyllum  have both seeded there. Consider planting Trout lilies, Virginia bluebells and other moisture and shade tolerant natives under your Leatherwood.


You won't find Dirca palustris at most garden centers, but don't despair! You can find this delightful little beauty at some native plant nurseries and online. Local gardeners can find in at Growild Nursery. It's also available online from Prairie Moon NurseryMissouri Wildflower Nursery, Broken Arrow Nursery and Mail Order Natives. I have ordered seeds and plants from several, but check out their reviews.

In the annals of underused/under appreciated native shrubs Leatherwood could be the poster child. I love this accurate quote from Dirr's:

"A great restrained, dapper, shade-loving shrub that simply cannot find its way out of the shadows into commerce."

It's always a shock to me that many of our lovely native perennials and shrubs receive relatively little attention in the nursery and landscape trade despite their many attractive features. Dirca palustris should be at every Independent Garden Center. Researchers suggests that its slow growth and the uncertainty about how well it might be be produced asexually has slowed industry interest.

I think that we wildflower/native plant aficionados could make a difference for these orphaned natives. We can start with requesting natives at our garden centers and we can stop purchasing the same old-same old exotics that don't add wildlife value to our gardens.

We must be the squeaky wheel for natives! 



The Particulars

Dirca palustris
Common Name: Leatherwood. lead-wood, moosewood, ropebark

Origin of common name: According to several sources the common name refers to the soft leathery, pliable, yet still very strong stems that are flexible enough to be tied into a knot and not break. The bark is fibrous and can be peeled off in strips and woven into twine.
Type: Deciduous shrub, a forest understory beauty
Family: Thymelaeaceae (Daphnes are also in this family)
Native Range: Eastern North America (Source)

Zone: 3 to 9
Height: 4.00 to 8.00 feet
Spread: 4.00 to 6.00 feet
Bloom Time: March to April (February in my middle Tennessee garden)
Bloom: Pale lemon yellow with bright yellow stamens
Leaf: Elliptic to obovate leaves (to 3-4" long) emerge yellow-green in spring, mature to medium green in summer and turn a pleasant bright yellow in fall.
Bark: Leathery with extremely pliable twigs
Sun: Part shade to full shade. This is an extremely shade tolerant shrub.
Water: Medium
Soil: Neutral, calcareous and acid soils. Moisture may be more important than the soil.
Pollination: The flowers have both male and female organs and are pollinated by insects.
Propagation: Seed dispersing birds and mammals (frugivorous)
Faunal associations: Small to medium sized bees: little carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), cuckoo bees (Nomada cuneata), mason bees (Osmia lignaria), Halictid bees (Augochlora pura, Lasioglossum spp.), plasterer bees (Colletes inaequalis), and Andrenid bees (Andrena rugosa).Source: Illinois Wildflowers
Maintenance: Low, if planted in the right spot otherwise keep soil moist
Interesting notes: Often found growing near Spicebush. Contact with the bark of Dirca palustris has been know to cause dermatitis; redness and blistering in some people.
Suggested Use: Woodland garden, specimen plant
Deer and bunnies seem to avoid it, possibly toxic.

Welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. I am so glad you stopped by. WW is about sharing and celebrating our native wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave your url when you comment. I love your comments, so thank you for leaving them.


Don't forget our Wildflower Wednesday monthly challenge! 

The first part of this challenge is to do something every month during 2023 and beyond that supports native wildflowers, pollinators, and the critters that visit and rely on our gardens. Activities that increase our knowledge of the natural world are equally as valuable. Helping others learn about nature is included. Golly gee whiz, there are so many things you can do. The second part of the challenge is to post about it somewhere: Your blog, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even your neighborhood listserve. Wouldn't an article in the local paper be a coup for nature! Why post it? Because positive publicity is needed to educate our friends, neighbors and communities about how important even the smallest changes we make as gardeners can be for pollinators, birds, insects and mammals that live all around us. 

Why now?  My neighborhood is changing. Yours might be, too. Every day an older home along with many (if not all) of the mature oak, hickory, maple, Eastern cedar and hackberry trees that have been there for over 75 years are cut down. In place of the "bee lawns" composed of Claytonia, Salvia lyrata, Ruellia humilis, fleabane, Western Daisy, Violets, self-heal, clovers, and dandelions that grew so well in the shallow soil that sits on top of limestone bedrock are sodded non-native lawns that get daily watering, whether it rains or not. Gone are the lightening bugs. Gone are the ground dwelling/nesting native bees. Gone is the habitat for insects, spiders and other critters. Gone is plant diversity. Gone are trees that provided for hundreds of moths, butterflies and other insects. Gone are the nesting sites for woodpeckers, hummingbirds, Chickadees and other birds. It breaks my heart. We can't stop the multi-million dollar houses from going up, but, maybe we can make a lot of educational noise and help our new neighbors see the value in providing for critters.

A gardener can hope!

Here's an incomplete list of things you might consider doing or changing in your garden, but don't limit yourself to my list, make your own list or check out the internet for ideas.

Shrink your lawn and make your planting beds larger.

Plant your favorite native perennials and shrubs. Leave them standing after they've gone to seed to continue to provide for wildlife. What you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. I garden for wildlife so every tree, shrub and plant is chosen with wildlife in mind.

Plant more natives and then consider planting even more. "A typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30% native plant species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using 70-80% native species." (source)

Commit to never, ever, ever, ever using pesticides in the garden.

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”

If you want to garden for wildlife and pollinators, don't let lack of space stop you! Plant your favorite wildflowers in large containers. You just might have the prairie or woodland garden you've always wanted...in a pot!
Create a water feature. Provide water year round that is accessible to birds, bees and other critters.

Show some soil! Our native ground nesting bees nest in bare soil, so don't mulch every square inch of your garden. 

Get rid of the plastic weed barriers in your garden, it's not good for anything.

Invite bugs into your garden. Plant annuals that attract beneficial bugs.

Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves. Leave a layer of leaves as a soft landing material under trees for moths and butterflies to over winter. Many caterpillars drop to the ground from the trees in the fall.

Make a brush pile. Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs'. They're also good bird, toad and small critter food. 

Rethink what you consider a pest. Lots of good bugs eat aphids. Spiders are important predators and bird food!

Add nesting boxes for birds. 

Turn off your yard up-lighting, eave lights and porch lights after 11pm. This is important for nocturnal critters including mammals, snakes, insects, bats, birds (especially during migration). (Birdcast suggestions)

Plant shrubs and small trees that provide berries and nuts.

Keep a nature journal: Observe visitors to the water feature, make note of when they visit. Notice which flowers attract the most pollinators and which ones are just pretty faces. 

Join your state native plant society (Tennessee Native Plant Society)

Join WildOnes even if there's no local group. (Middle Tennessee WildOnes)

Support your local native plant sellers. (GroWild in middle Tennessee, Overhill Gardens in east Tennessee,  Resource Guide TN Native Plant Society)

Encourage your local garden clubs to offer native plant talks.

If your garden club has a plant sale encourage them to sell more native plants.

Get trained as a naturalist (Tennessee Naturalist Program, Almost every state has their own Master Naturalist training program)

Take an online course on tree, fungi and wildflower id.

Take a walk in your neighborhood and observe nature. To quote Joanna Brichetto in Sidewalk Nature "Look Around. Nature is here, is us, our driveways, our baseboards, parks, and parking lots."

Buy the best wildflower, butterfly and bird id books for your state.

Read nature books to your children and grandchildren. Buy them nature books.

Give nature books as baby shower gifts (Nature books for infants and toddlers)

Read! There are hundreds of books on gardening for wildlife, the environment, and rewilding our world. There are delightful blogs with wonderful and informative articles.

If you are already gardening with wildlife in mind then add a few signs that help educate your neighbors. (Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership)

Set up an information station where neighbors can pick up brochures about your garden and other info. 

Get certified (National Wildlife Federation, check to see what your state offers)



Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Hmmm...I could plant this one. And thanks for hosting!

  2. Leave it to Gail to teach me about a native plant that I’ve never seen or heard of! Lovely

  3. Great post as usual. So glad to see great reviews about this shrub! I purchased 3 from Mo Wildflower Nursery about 5 years ago and they finally bloomed last year. Patience is required because it grows very slowly. But it's worth the wait.

  4. If I lived there, would love to plant that. Interesting flowers displayed on open branches.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson