• Laurel Contributor

The Lovely Leucothoe

by Jeannie Chambers

The lore surrounding Highland Dog Hobble is freighted with a tale that could have been lifted from “The Jerry Springer Show.”

Highland Dog Hobble is the common name for Leucothoe fontanesiana, an evergreen shrub native to the Appalachian Mountains, but there are other Leucothoe found in faraway places like Japan, China, the Himalayas, Viet Nam and Madagascar.

Growing in mounds from three to six feet tall with fountain-like arching branches, its new growth is red and turns a deep burgundy in the fall. Come Spring, little ivory flowers appear along the stem in bell-like clusters similar to Snow Drops and Lily of the Valley. Leucothoe comes from a large family of over 4,200 species, and its leaves share some of the same tough characteristics of its cousins, Rhododendron and Laurel.

Dog Hobble is toxic to dogs, cats and horses if ingested, but that’s not how the hobble part got its name. Hunting dogs have been known to be hobbled (or tangled) in a thicket of Leucothoe while their prey, such as bear, easily maneuvered the arching branches. Dog Hobble makes a nice hedge for a walkway and is considered deer resistant. They grow well to Zone 5, but may need to be protected from harsh winters and heavy winds. They like basking in the sun all year, enjoy having wet feet, and don’t tolerate drought. The branches are beautiful, used in flower arrangements year-round.

The rest of Leucothoe’s story is as old as the sun. Literally. Here’s the PG version of the Greek tale as told by Ovid, who lived during the time of Caesar Augustus. Apollo, the god of Sun, saw pretty much everything, including the adulterous affair of Mars and Venus. Apollo snitched to Vulcan, Venus’s husband, and Vulcan hatched a plan for all the gods to catch Mars and Venus in the act.

The plan worked, and Venus was embarrassed and came up with a plan herself. She wanted to get back at Apollo for shaming her, and caused him to become smitten with Leucothoe. (Keep following, this is where it gets a little crazy.) Apollo, a lovesick puppy, disguised himself as Leucothoe’s mother in order to gain access to her bedroom, where he revealed himself and took advantage of Leucothoe’s innocence. Clytie, who was infatuated with Apollo, found out and told Leucothoe’s father. He was so shamed, he buried Leucothoe alive as punishment. Apollo tried to save her, but she died and turned into a shrub of Frankincense.

Another name for Dog Hobble is Fetterbush. To fetter is to restrain, mainly around the ankles. Whether you get hobbled or fettered, remember the origin of this plant’s name. If there’s a moral to the story, maybe its look before you leap, but please look for the beauty in Leucothoe – she deserves it.

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