Symplocos tinctoria (Sweetleaf) on the Zeagle’s Rock Trail

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.

Symplocos tinctoria spring leaves

Symplocos tinctoria spring leaves

Symplocos tinctoria leaves

Symplocos tinctoria leaves

Symplocos tinctoria drupes

Symplocos tinctoria drupes

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.

Symplocos tinctoria flowers and buds

Symplocos tinctoria flowers and buds

The next photo shows  individual flowers with the stamens so prominent that they tend to obscure the petals.

Symplocos tinctoria flower

Symplocos tinctoria flower

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.

Symplocos tinctoria flowering with old leaves still remaining

Symplocos tinctoria flowering with old leaves still remaining

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.

Symplocos tinctoria branching terminal buds

Symplocos tinctoria branching terminal buds

A close shot of  a terminal bud shows the brown color and profuse hairs seen at this time.

Symplocos tinctoria terminal buds

Symplocos tinctoria terminal buds

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.

Herb Amyx

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2 Responses to Symplocos tinctoria (Sweetleaf) on the Zeagle’s Rock Trail

  1. Steven Bennett says:

    No mail-order source for seedlings of Sweetleaf appears to exist. I would be interested in buying several (5, a dozen, more). I would be grateful if someone could point me toward a current source.

  2. Your initial observation appears to be correct. So far, no one has come forward or been able to find a mail-order source. Collecting seeds and attempting germination on your own is a possibility.

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