Plant of the Week

Buckleya distichophylla, Pirate Bush, range map.
Buckleya distichophylla range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Buckleya distichophylla, Pirate Bush, flowers.
Buckleya distichophylla, Pirate Bush. Photo by Will Cook.

Buckleya distichophylla, Pirate Bush, leaves.
Buckleya distichophylla, Pirate Bush. Photo by Will Cook.

Buckleya distichophylla plants.
Buckleya distichophylla. Photo by Will Cook.

Pirate Bush (Buckleya distichophylla(Nuttall) Torrey)

By Duke Rankin

Pirate Bush is a rare shrub in the sandalwood family. It grows in clumps and reaches about fifteen feet tall. The opposite leaves are 2–4 inches long, narrow, and pale green, giving the plant a very distinctive appearance. The flowers are small and green, and the plants are dioecious—bushes are either male or female, and both sexes are needed to produce the small, green fruits that resemble miniature, inch-long torpedoes. The fruit is a drupe, a fleshy fruit with a single, stony seed, like a peach or a cherry.

Many of the species in the sandalwood family are parasitic to some degree. Pirate bush is also parasitic, penetrating the roots of other plants with special roots called haustonia. Stealing nutrients from another plant is presumably how pirate bush got its name, although many sources list no common name for the species. At one time, pirate bush was thought to parasitize only eastern hemlock trees. Recently, however, pirate bush has shown the ability to parasitize a number of species, especially pine trees, but also other shrubs and herbaceous plants.

Pirate bush is endemic to the southern Appalachians, growing only in the mountains of southern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina, and is rare throughout its range—all three of the states list the species as either state endangered or state threatened. The reasons behind this rarity are unknown. Pirate bush occupies only a small fraction of what appears to be suitable habitat. In addition, plants moved outside the natural range of the species have grown very well.

Asa Gray, the legendary Harvard botanist, and author of the first flora for the northeastern United States, collected one pirate bush growing outside its native range in 1843. Gray collected the plant while visiting the southern Appalachians, and planted it in the Harvard Botanic Garden. In 1946, when the garden was dismantled, the plant was moved to the Arnold Arboretum, where it remains to this day. In addition, although other plants have been growing in the Arnold since its inception in 1872, the 1843 date of cultivation makes Gray’s pirate bush the oldest cultivated plant in the arboretum.

Pirate bush was first discovered in western North Carolina by the English botanist Thomas Nuttall, who incorrectly assigned it to a genus in the olive family. In 1843, Samuel Buckley, a collector working for John Torrey, rediscovered the species. Torrey, a professor at Columbia College, properly identified and classified the species, and renamed the genus in Buckley’s honor.

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