The Washington Times-Herald

March 18, 2014

Twigs give Leatherwood its name

The Washington Times-Herald

---- — One of our lesser known Indiana shrubs also has a rather unusual name. This is the leatherwood. A usually short shrub, it only grows to a height of around six feet, leatherwood receives its name from the soft leather-like twigs that extend out from the trunk of the plant.

These stems have been utilized in the crafting of ornamental baskets that once could be found in small town gift and novelty shops. I have not seen a leatherwood basket in years. Do any of you still have one or is it a thing of the past?

The leatherwood is found in scattered sites all across Indiana. There is a Leatherwood Creek in Lawrence County east of Bedford. I have never looked along this stream for this shrub, but I’m sure there is or has been leatherwood plants growing there. If you know, would you please let me know.

Not a common shrub in Indiana, I have found a few in Harrison and Crawford counties. One site had several growing along a small stream. This plant likes a moist, rich site and is not usually found growing elsewhere.

Leatherwood leaves are alternate and can be up to four inches in length. The bad part in looking for this shrub is it looks like a lot of other small plants one will find growing in its choice habitat. One way to find a leatherwood is to look for its fruit. They are one-half inch long drupes, green in color that only has one seed hidden inside the drupe.

One has to look early in the spring to find the leatherwood fruit as it appears in late April or early May, long before most plants have their fruits. Another thing to look for in the search for a leatherwood grove is its flowers.

They appear before its leaves do and may be found as early as March. They are a light yellow in color and usually are found in groups of three. They are around one-half inch in length and have eight extended hanging stamens. The twigs of the leatherwood that were used in basket weaving are light brown in young plants but become darker as they age. Twigs of the shrub are so leathery that they are very hard to break. You have to tear them from the plant.

Listed as a somewhat toxic plant, the leatherwood is still a food source for several kinds of wildlife. Its fruit is eaten by several kinds of birds and its seeds are consumed by squirrels and other small mammals. Deer also find leatherwood leaves a good source of food. They have been observed eating its leaves as fast as they can pull them from the plant.

However, even deer find the twigs hard to pull from the shrub, but if very hungry and little else is available they will keep after it until they have extracted a few twigs from their base.

Some plant guides state the leatherwood is so unique that there is no other shrub just like it.

I have often wondered how some of our plants and animals received their name. The leatherwood seems obvious. Its twigs are like leather and quite unique. Other plants, however, if I were to name them, I would have given them another name.

Take the dogwood as an example. Does this pretty shrub resemble a dog? It sure does not look like one to me. While it does have “bark,” I have never heard one let out a yelp.

Another one is the bittersweet. What a contradiction. Is it a bitter or sweet plant? I usually think of something as either sweet or bitter, never both in the same substance. How really did it get its name?

I could go on, but by now you can see last winter still has left me a little bit addled in the brain. If you don’t believe me just ask my friends.