Bladdernut

Staphylea trifolia

Description & Overview

Bladdernut is a highly versatile under-used Wisconsin native shrub that is shade-tolerant, thicket-forming, and provides four-season interest. Bell-shaped white flowers hang from the stems in May. Inflated bladder-like seed capsules follow, persisting through fall and winter. The dark green trifoliate leaves turn a soft yellow in fall. In addition to these features, it also has unique textured bark! Bladdernut is adapted to average to moist soil conditions and attractive to many species of wildlife. May also be known as American Bladdernut, Bladder nut.


Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 10-15 feet
Mature Spread: 8-12 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Upright, spreading shrub
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Full Shade
Site Requirements: Moist to well-drained soil
Flower: 1″ white bell-shaped
Bloom Period: May
Foliage: Dark green, trifoliate
Fall Color: Soft yellows through crimson reds
Fruit Notes: Chartreuse, inflated capsule

Suggested Uses:

A vigorous Wisconsin native understory shrub, American bladdernut is found naturally along riverbanks, in floodplains, and on wooded slopes. This unique trifoliate gem suckers to form thickets but can also be pruned into a small tree by diligently removing suckers and promoting growth of one primary terminal.

There are a multitude of potential uses for Bladdernut in the landscape! It provides shelter for wildlife and makes an excellent screen. This plant is literally right “at home” in a naturalized or woodland garden. Erosion control is one of its important contributions to our local ecosystem, making it an obvious choice for planting on slopes, along waterways, and in wet areas. Bladdernut’s unique features can be showcased as a specimen or in a mass planting.

The textured stems and puffy bladder-like seed capsules provide interest well into winter, while clusters of white drooping bell-shaped flowers emerge in spring. Distinctly trifoliate leaves pop from erect stems, turning various shades of light yellow to reddish-gold in fall. Seed capsules start off waxy and bright chartreuse, turning papery and brown by late fall. Natural variation within the species keeps things interesting: Bladdernut’s leaf size, shrub form, and fall color can all vary slightly, providing subtle contrast within a border or privacy screen.

Bladdernut is highly versatile and does great in our alkaline soils. Thriving in full shade to full sun, tolerates occasional flooding and wet sites, and black walnut tolerant, there’s not much that puts a damper on our enthusiasm for this stalwart shrub! Dry areas are tolerated but it will need watering in periods of drought. Since it forms colonies, Bladdernut is happiest planted where it can spread.

Salable #5 Container Bladdernut. Left picture taken late July. Right picture taken late August.

Wildlife Value:

Bladdernut will spread and form thickets, providing protection and habitat for birds and other wildlife. The flowers attract pollinators including butterflies, hummingbirds, several bee species (Halictus spp., Lasioglossum spp., Andrena spp., honeybees, bumblebees), Syrphid flies, dance flies, and the Giant Bee Fly. Deer don’t seem to bother it as much as some other types of native woody shrubs.

Maintenance Tips:

Bladdernut requires little to no maintenance, especially in a setting where it can spread. It can be pruned as desired to control growth, using the Heading Cuts Method or Thinning Cuts Method of pruning. Stems can be pruned back in summer to encourage a denser growth habit or reduce height. Remove suckers if desired to control spread. Can be maintained as a small tree but will continue to send shoots and sucker.

Water Bladdernut during drought conditions.

Flower to Seed Story: Bladdernut

Bell-shaped white flowers hang from the stems in May. Seed capsules begin to develop from the flowers.

Inflated bladder-like seed capsules follow. The seeds begin to mature inside.

The seed capsules hold developed seed. The capsules will also persist through fall and into winter.

Seed mature towards fall as great red fall color develops.

More mature size Bladdernut with stellar red fall color.

Pests/Problems:

Bladdernut is not affected by any serious insect or disease problems. It may be fed upon by native insects, which don’t typically affect the health of the plant. This is natural and provides important support to the local ecosystem. Hence, if insect activity is observed, intervention is unnecessary, and any pesticide treatment will likely do more harm than good.

Bladdernut is not drought tolerant, so it will require supplemental watering during dry periods.

Leaf Lore:

Bladdernut is indeed a unique plant. There are only 5 genera and 27 to 50 species globally in the entire bladdernut family (Staphyleacea). Of these species, only 10 fall under the genus Staphylea, and all are found in the Northern Hemisphere.

The common name Bladdernut refers to the seed capsules which consist of three air-filled chambers where seeds develop. These fun and decorative pod-like capsules can be “popped” while green or “rattled” once dried after the seeds loosen. Seeds are round, hard, and quite shiny. The dried seed capsules were reportedly used by the Meskwaki Native American tribe in dances and ritual ceremonies, as well as using Bladdernut seeds in gourd rattles.

There is one online source that claims the seeds are edible and a good substitute for walnuts in chocolate chip cookies. We are highly skeptical and don’t recommend trying it – let’s be honest, who really wants bladdernut seeds in their chocolate chip cookies anyway?

Companion Plants:

A plethora of Wisconsin native plants combine effortlessly with Bladdernut for the perfect natural flow in your landscape. These plants provide not only visual interest, but also habitat and food for our native wildlife and insect population. Create a beautiful mass planting, mixed screen, or woodland border with a variety of color and texture by planting with Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), Redosier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), American Plum (Prunus americana), Blackhaw or Nannyberry Viburnum.

Accent with native Bottlebrush Grass or any native ferns. Companion perennials for sunny areas that enjoy wet locations include Ironweed, all varieties of Milkweed, Lobelia species, and Spotted Joe-Pye Weed. Companion perennials that grow in more shady conditions include Spikenard, Zig Zag Goldenrod, False Solomon’s Seal, and Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum).