Eastern Leatherwood – Dirca Palustris: Medicinal & Alternative Uses of Rope Wood

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In Chippewa, djibe’gub, meaning ghost or spirit, moosewood AKA Eastern leatherwood (Dirca palustris) has been bumped as a feature here before for more edible and medicinal plants. However, I love this shrub so much and want to talk about it!

Have you noticed a mostly inconspicuous shrub in the understory of woods around Haliburton that is rubbery? With leathery branches and stems that bend easily? This is it! Leatherwood can be common in our area in part because it loves mineral rich woods. A woods full of leatherwood is a woods full of wonderful rocks and minerals.

In Haliburton Flora, it’s listed as uncommon, but going off my hikes it has gained ground here. It’s also sometimes called swampwood. It likes damp (even swampy) woods and sparsely wooded hillsides, but it gradually spreads throughout a typical Haliburton forest.

Eastern Leatherwood - Dirca Palustris pliability on display
Eastern Leatherwood – Dirca Palustris pliability on display

Early spring its quaint yellow flowers are some of the first to bloom. When the shrubs are abundant and blooming it gives quite a glow to the understory. And again in the autumn when its leaves turn yellow.

Eastern Leatherwood - Dirca Palustris
Eastern Leatherwood – Dirca Palustris

Not-so Edible & Medicinal Uses of Eastern Leatherwood

Medicinal tags include Emetic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

While it has some traditional use as an emetic medicine, it’s mostly not useful to humans for food or medicine. All parts are toxic to ingest. And even topically, it’s an irritant that can cause severe contact dermatitis.

Alternative Uses of Rope Wood

It’s reportedly equal to hemp as far as cordage goes. Leatherwood can be used for rope making and weaving baskets.

It can also be used to make paper.

Growing Dirca Palustris

Leatherwood likes somewhat shady and moist conditions, and our mineral rich acidic Haliburton soils. It is slow growing, but worth it if you are restoring an understory. Many bees and insects, including our mourning cloak butterflies, will visit the flowers.

In the wild it’s sometimes mixed in with another native shrub called spicebush. They would go well together, especially if you’re in southern Ontario (spicebush is only near native in cottage county). If you’re in need of understory shrubs others that come to mind for Haliburton area are red berried elder and native honeysuckles.


Work carefully as severe contact dermatitis is possible.

All parts are toxic. The red berries are poisonous to humans. One of its folk names is poison berry.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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