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Leather Leaf

Chamaedaphne calyculata

  • Written also: Leatherleaf
  • Family: Heather Family – Ericaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial dwarf shrub. Rhizome 1.5–2 m (60–80 in.) long, creeping.
  • Height: 20–50 cm (8–20 in.). Stem erect-branched, woody.
  • Flower: Corolla urceolate (pitcher-shaped), white, 5–6 mm (0.2–0.24 in.) long, fused, 5-lobed. Sepals 5. A single carpel. Stamens 10. Flowers borne on a leafy, one-sided, sideways-curving, terminal raceme, short-stalked, nodding.
  • Leaves: Alternate, short-stalked, tapering towards tip, overwintering. Blade elliptic, rigid, underside brown peltate hairs, with entire margins–irregularly small-toothed, with revolute margins.
  • Fruit: Spherical, 2.5 mm (0.1 in.) long capsule with 5 compartments.
  • Habitat: Bogs, swamps, bog margins near shores.
  • Flowering time: May–June.

Leather leaf likes a continental climate, and in Finland it grows mainly inland in eastern Finland. It has adapted to the cold winter and hot summer, but long, mild autumns do not suit it. Leather leaf thrives best in pine-dominated bogs. It is an evergreen that spends most of the winter above the snow-line. Its overwintering leaves stay on the plant and turn a beautiful copper red. When spring comes they become erect and change back to olive green, but they fall when the plant blooms, at which time the new leaves start to become fully developed. The aromatic fragrance and leathery surface of the leaves has probably been the reason for its scientific name Chamaedaphne, which means ‘low-growing bay tree’ in ancient Greek. Like many other members of the Heather family, its leaves are poisonous.

Leather leaf’s buds turn into flowers the preceding summer and it blooms very early. In southern Finland flowering plants can sometimes be found as early as April, before any other flowers have bloomed on the bogs. In a mild winter leather leaf might open the lowest flowers of its inflorescence in the autumn – these flowers do not however develop seeds and propagation problems can limit its spread to the west and south where the winters are milder. Leather leaf is the first heather plant to open on the bogs, and the inflorescence continues long into the middle of summer. The species do not flower at the same time, so they do not need to compete for the same pollinators, and the insects do not carry the pollen to the wrong flowers.

Other species from the same family

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