Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) is an erect to spreading native shrub. It can be found from Southeast Alaska to Santa Barbara County in California. Ninebark grows mostly along the Coast with numbers decreasing at higher elevations and as one progresses eastward. Its ecology is wet, somewhat open places at elevations less than 4,500 feet.
A member of the Rose Family (Rosaceae), ninebark leaves look similar to ocean spray and snow wreath leaves and unless in flower these shrubs are often confused with each other. A couple years ago Leonard and I were searching for the rare snow wreath. We knew a trail where the snow wreath reportedly grew, but had to go back several times until the snow wreath was in flower before actually identifying it. Casually walking the trail we mistook the snow wreath when not in flower for ninebark. (See “Hiding in Plain Sight” 05-14-18 and “Shasta Snow Wreath” 05-19-18)
Ninebark leaves are deciduous, alternate and deeply veined. Shiny dark green above and lighter with hairs below, the leaves are 3 to 5 lobed with the lobes toothed. They resemble maple leaves.
The ninebark inflorescence is a terminal, rounded cluster that extends from leafy twigs. The white flowers have 5 sepals, 5 petals, about 30 pink-anthered stamens and 3 to 5 pistils. The ovary is superior.
The fruits are reddish bunches of small, dry inflated pods covered in hairs that open on one or both sides. Two to 4 shiny, yellowish seeds are contained in each fruit.
Ninebark wood was used for children’s bows and other small items such as knitting needles. A tea from peeled sticks was used as an emetic. Other plant preparations treated gonorrhea, sores and constipation.
Ninebark got its common name because it was believed that there were nine layers of bark on the shredding stems. The genus comes from Greek (physa/bellows or bladder and carpos/fruit) and refers to the inflated seed pods. “Forming a dense head” is the meaning of the species designation.
These ninebark plants were photographed in May along the Hiouchi Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park CA.