It’s easy to walk right past one of the rarest shrubs in California. Especially at this time of year, western leatherwood (Dirca occidentalis) is little more than a bundle of slim branches hidden in the dappled shade of the forest.
But despite being understated, this is a lovely plant. It produces its leaves and flowers from the same bud. First fuzzy, pussy-willow-type buds pop out all over the multiple, reddish-brown stems that rise from the ground. Then small but intricate yellow flowers emerge–first the long pistil, and then the many drooping stamens. As the flowers fade, the fuzzy young leaves begin to appear. In my limited experience with dirca, as it is often called, these things happen at different times on a single plant so you can see buds, flowers and young leaves all at the same time.
Dirca grows only in the San Francisco Bay Area–and even here it is a very rare sight. It tends to grow on moist hillsides, in partial shade. In the place where I saw one, it was under oaks and alongside hazelnut. The older stems were mottled, splotched with patches of white and gray.