I wrote this post earlier this year, the week before Arbor day.
In honor of the forest-friendly holiday, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite trees (or, more accurately, a shrub): Eastern Leatherwood (Dirca palustris L. Thymelaeaceae), which is native to eastern North America. It’s west-coast counterpart, Dirca occidentalis, or Western Leatherwood, is rare and endemic to the San Francisco Bay area of California. While D. palustris and D. occidentalis grow almost exclusively in moist, marshy areas, in 2009, an upland variety, D. decipiens, was discovered growing in more arid areas in the western Ozarks.
Leatherwood’s interesting and useful qualities are covered in the out-of-print book, Uses of Plants for the Past 500 Years and How to Grow Them by Canadian ethnobotanist Charlotte Erichsen-Brown, Breezy Creek Press, 1979.
An in-print version, entitled Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants—A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes was published by Dover, 1989 – both books can be found with a quick search of your favorite online book retailer. In her writings, Charlotte documents Leatherwood’s uses from 400 B.C.E. to 1955 C.E.—2,355 years. These include sewing the timbers of a bark canoe together with strips of the leatherwood tree. It is also good for making ropes, thongs, cordage and baskets and many other purposes. At a point in its growth, it seems like it might be possible to remove the bark off the trunk and make huarache sandals with strips of this vegan leather!
For the past 25 years I have been encouraging individuals to “adopt” this plant, grow it out fully and then write a booklet on how to cultivate and best utilize some of its many qualities. Leatherwood is occasionally offered in the native plant nursery trade (Yerba Buena Nursery in Half Moon Bay, CA, has a waiting list for Western Leatherwood, and many online nurseries have Eastern Leatherwood seeds or seedlings for sale). How exciting if lots of individuals could similarly adopt many of the other plants in these books was well. Are you ready!