Shrubs of the Adirondacks:
Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata)
Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) is a native evergreen shrub which produces small, bell-shaped white flowers in spring. It grows in bogs and other wetland areas, as well as High Peaks summits, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
Leatherleaf is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae). The genus name (Chamaedaphne) comes from the Greek meaning "ground laurel." The common name – Leatherleaf – is a reference to the plant's tough, leather-like leaf. This plant is also known as Cassandra.
Identification of Leatherleaf
Leatherleaf forms a small, mound-shaped shrub up to three feet high. The stems are covered with tiny brownish scales. Leatherleaf has many branches and forms dense thickets. Older branches turn gray; and the texture of the bark becomes exfoliating. In alpine zones, the plant is much smaller, forming a miniature shrub.
The leaves of the Leatherleaf are alternate and elongated oval or elliptical in shape. They are somewhat leathery in appearance. They generally are 3/4 to 1.5 inches long, and about 1/2 inch wide. The upper surfaces of the leaf are dark green with a smooth sheen; the undersides have small brown scales. Older leaves are brownish bronze above and yellowish beneath. The foliage often turns red-brown winter.
In spring, Leatherleaf produces nodding white flowers, which are about 1/4 inch long and hang from the upper leaf axils in one-sided, spike-like clusters. The tubular flowers are wider at the top than the bottom. The lips of the petals are rolled up at the bottom. The flowers sometimes have a pinkish tint.
Leatherleaf usually blooms in the Adirondack region in May, depending on the weather. A tally of flowering dates for the upland Adirondack areas compiled by Michael Kudish, based on data collected from the early seventies to the early nineties, lists the flowering time as 9 through 19 May in upland areas. Leatherleaf plants on High Peaks summits in the Adirondacks flower much later, usually in mid-June.
Leatherleaf produces fruit in August. The fruits are round, reddish capsules. They eventually turn brown, persisting through winter.
Leatherleaf is one of several leathery leafed plants growing in swampy or boggy habitats. Keys to identifying Leatherleaf and differentiating it from other leathery-leafed plants growing in these habitats include leaf arrangement, shape, and color, as well as the color and arrangement of the flowers.
- Several features differentiate Leatherleaf from Bog Laurel. Bog Laurel has opposite leaves, while Leatherleaf has alternate leaves. In addition, the leaves of the Leatherleaf are not distinctly in-rolled like those of Bog Laurel. The undersides of Leatherleaf leaves have small brown scales, contrasting with Bog Laurel leaves, which are whitish on the underside. The flowers of these two shrubs are also quite different. The white Leatherleaf bells appear on axils of the current year's leaves, forming a one-side raceme, while the pink Bog Laurel flowers appear in clusters at the end of the branch.
- Leatherleaf can be distinguished from Sheep Laurel by the color and placement of its flowers. Sheep Laurel's crimson-pink flowers are quite different from Leatherleaf's white bells. In addition, Leatherleaf's alternate leaves contrasts with Sheep Laurel's opposite or whorled leaves.
- Leatherleaf can be distinguished from Labrador Tea by both the leaves and the flowers. Leatherleaf leaves are not in-rolled like the leaves of Labrador Tea. Also, the undersides of Leatherleaf leaves have small brown scales, contrasting with the dense mat of orange-brown hairs on the underside of Labrador Tea leaves. In addition, Leatherleaf leaves become progressively smaller toward the end of the current year's growth. Finally, Labrador Tea's cluster of five-petalled white flowers contrasts with the white bell-like flowers of Leatherleaf.
- Flower arrangement also helps distinguish Leatherleaf from Bog Rosemary. Bog Rosemary flowers are bell-shaped, like those of Leatherleaf, but are arrayed on the plant in a completely different way. The white Leatherleaf bells appear on axils of the current year's leaves, forming a one-side raceme, while the pinkish Bog Rosemary flowers appear in clusters at the end of the branch. Leaves are another key to distinguishing between the two species when flowers are not present. Bog Rosemary's leaves are distinctly inrolled and are white on underside, contrasting with the rusty scales on the underside of Leatherleaf leaves.
Uses of Leatherleaf
Leatherleaf has very limited edible uses. The fresh or dried leaves of Leatherleaf have been used to make a tea-like beverage. However, some reports indicate that a toxin called andromedotoxin can be released from the plant if it is infused in boiling water. For that reason, it is recommended that the leaves be placed in a jar of cool water and left in a sunny position to make sun-tea.
Leatherleaf has limited medicinal uses. Native American Indian tribes reportedly used Leatherleaf to treat some ailments. Some groups used an infusion of leaves for fevers and a poultice of leaves for inflammations.
Wildlife Value of Leatherleaf
Leatherleaf has moderate wildlife value.
- The plant is a minor part of winter browse for White-tailed Deer and Moose.
- Leatherleaf provides nesting cover for several bird species, including Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Ring-necked Ducks.
- Eastern Cottontails and Snowshoe Hares reportedly feed on the twigs and bark.
- Leatherleaf is the host plant for the Brown Elfin.
Distribution of Leatherleaf
Leatherleaf can be found in the north-eastern part of the US, west to the Great Lakes states. It is present in most provinces of Canada. This plant is listed as threatened in Illinois and Maryland.
Leatherleaf is found in nearly all counties in New York State. It occurs in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line, with the exception of Fulton County.
Habitat of Leatherleaf
Leatherleaf is acid tolerant and shade intolerant. It among those plants which usually require a high water table and very wet soil. It appears to do best in boggy soils, but can also grow in alpine organic mats. Leatherleaf is often the first shrub to enter a bog after sphagnum is established; this plant frequently plays a major role in extending the bog mat. Because it is shade intolerant, Leatherleaf usually begins to thin as tall shrubs or bog forest species such as Tamarack or Black Spruce become established on the site.
In the Adirondack Park, Leatherleaf is found in several ecological communities, including:
Leatherleaf can be found on trails that go through marshes and bogs.
- At the Paul Smiths VIC, Leatherleaf may be seen along the margins of Heron Marsh, from the Heron Marsh Trail.
- Leatherleaf also grows on Barnum Bog, accessible from the Boreal Life Trail boardwalk, and on the margins of Black Pond (from the Black Pond Trail) and Long Pond (from the Long Pond Trail).
- You can also find Leatherleaf on the Bloomingdale Bog Trail.
Leatherleaf can also be found growing on the summits of Adirondack mountains in the High Peaks region, including Marcy, Algonquin, Wright, Iroquois, Coldin, Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics, Dix, and Whiteface.
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