Symplocos tinctoria (Sweetleaf, Horsesugar) is a large semi-evergreen shrub that is rare in the Piedmont of North Carolina, but common on the Coastal Plain. It occurs occasionally in the Falls Lake area and at Rockcliff Farm. Small numbers can be seen on both sides of the Zeagle’s Rock Trail from its beginning at the dirt road near Rockcliff Farm, to Zeagle’s Rock. Like most of the Sweetleaf seen at Falls Lake, the Rockcliff Farm population grows in heavy shade and is often browsed by deer. Blooms are sparse and many of the shrubs do not bloom at all. The leaves of this shrub, as the name Sweetleaf implies, are slightly sweet-tasting, which leads to preferential browsing by the local White-tailed Deer. The browsing is fortunately often very erratic. Last fall, one large shrub along the trail was chewed to tatters with only small pieces of leaves remaining, while another similar sized shrub, just 10 feet away, was untouched and had all its foliage.
The following photos were taken along Zeagle’s Rock Trail in May. A flash was used due to heavy shade from the surrounding trees. The photos illustrate new spring foliage, still green and shiny. The third photo illustrates the drupe (a fruit containing a single seed) that is formed after a successful bloom. Sweetleaf spreads mostly by seeds.
The following photo shows 2 flowers in bloom, with unopened buds along the stem and new leaves coming out of the end of the stem. One old leaf can still be seen hanging on from the previous year. Note the prominent stamens. The flower shots were taken in Bertie County in April.
The next photo shows individual flowers with the stamens so prominent that they tend to obscure the petals.
At the center of this photo, flowers can be seen blooming with new foliage extending from the stem and a good number of old leaves still attached.
During the winter, distinctive terminal buds can be seen. These final photos were taken in February, and many older leaves were still attached to this plant.
A close shot of a terminal bud shows the brown color and profuse hairs seen at this time.
Sweetleaf is easiest to find in April and May, when the foliage is new and the deer have not yet destroyed the leaves. And the Zeagle’s Rock Trail below Rockcliff Farm is one of the best spots to find it.