Martinsville Virginia Henry County VA
back : LEATHERWOOD : Dirca palustris : Wicopy : Thoreau's Journal Entry

September 8, 1856
ThoreauP. M. - Clearing up. I went a-botanizing by the Coldwater Path, for the most part along a steep wooded hillside on Whetstone Brook and through its interval.

In the last heavy rain, two or three weeks since, there was a remarkable freshet on this brook, such as has not been known before, the bridge and road carried away, the bed of the stream laid bare, a new channel being made, the interval covered with sand and gravel, and trees (buttonwood, etc.) brought down; several acres thus buried. Frost escaped from his house on a raft. I observed a stream of large bare white rocks four or five rods wide, which at first I thought had been washed down, but it seems this was the former bed of the stream, it having worn a new channel further east.

Witch-hazel out, maybe a day or two, in some places, but the Browns do not think the fringed gentian out yet.
There for the first time I see growing indigenously the Dirca palustris, leather-wood, the largest on the low interval by the brook. I notice a bush there seven feet high. In its form it is somewhat like a quince bush, though less spreading, its leaves broad, like entire sassafras leaves; now beginning to turn yellow. It has a remarkably strong thick bark and soft white wood which bends like lead (Gray says it is brittle!), the different layers separating at the end. I cut a good-sized switch, which was singularly tough and flexible, just like a cowhide, and would answer the purpose of one admirable. The color of the bark is a very pale brown. I was much interested in this shrub, since it was the Indian's rope. Frost said that the farmers of Vermont used it to tie up their fences with. Certainly there can be no wood equal to it as a withe. He says it is still strong when dry. I should think it would be worth the while for the farmers to cultivate for this purpose. How often in the woods and fields we want a string or rope and cannot find one. This is the plant which Nature has made for this purpose. The Browns gave me some of the flowers, which appear very early in spring. Gray says that in northern New England it is called wicopy. Potter, in History of Manchester, says Indians sewed canoes with it. Beck says, "The bark has a sweetish taste, and when chewed excites a burning sensation in the fauces," and, according to Emerson, the bark of this family, "taken into the stomach causes heat and vomiting or purging." According to the latter, cordage has been made from the bark of this family, also paper. Emerson says of this plant in particular, "The fresh bark produces a sensation of heat in the stomach, and at last brings on vomiting. . . It has such strength that a man cannot pull apart so much as covers a branch of half or a third of an inch in diameter. It is used by millers and others for thongs." Indian cordage. I feel as if I had discovered a more indigenous plant than usual, it was so peculiarly useful to the aborigines.

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