Nature Nearby: Nature’s barbed wire — the stuff of legend, food and drink

January 22, 2016

BY FRED SEITZ —

BY FRED SEITZ —

Take a walk in Magruder woods (and in many backyards) and you see or get poked by a bright green, but quite thorny vine, known as Greenbriar (aka, catbriar). This native vine at times has been described as “invasive” because it can grow in such dense thickets that it crowds out many other plants. However, critters that can negotiate the thorns sometimes use a patch of the vine for concealment or protection from pursuing critters and surely from most humans.

Tendrils on the vines enable Greenbriar to climb branches making them more of a challenge to prune and safely pass. The tendrils can sense the touch of a branch and will increase their grip and harden as they encircle the limb, fence or whatever they attach to.  Even after pruning the plant, its rhizome’s underground food storage for the plant can help it sprout again.

In short, it is a tough, not so little plant, growing up to 20 plus feet tall. The plant does well in temperate environments; there are around 300 species worldwide, 20 of which grow in North America.  It will also grow readily with familiar true invasive vines, such as English ivy. The prolific growth of the greenbriar has challenged my own and other “weed warrior” efforts in accessing and removing English ivy.

Photo courtesy Franz Eugen Köhler.

Photo courtesy Franz Eugen Köhler.

Vilifying the thorny aspect of the plant comes easy when you’ve been pricked by it on a walk, but the leaves are edible for many animals (notably deer and other mammals) and the bluish berries are consumed by birds and mice who, in turn, spread the seeds for more Greenbriar. Some species of caterpillars also use the leaves as a food source.  The early shoots of the plants are even recommended as a “trail nibble” for hikers and walkers who know to mind the thorns. The roots of some of the North American species are used to make sasparilla and herbal drinks. One species of the plant’s root was used as a medicine for the sexually transmitted disease (STD) known as syphilis. Other herbal remedies ascribed to the plant were the increase of testosterone and sasparilla was also suggested to increase the amorous tendencies of the imbiber.

The biological name for the plant, Smilax rotundifolia —  like many biological names — comes by way of the interesting legend about a beautiful young nymph named Smilax  who shunned the advances of a mortal youth named Crocus. Ironically, both the seeds of Smilax and the bulbs of Crocus rely on the winter chill to bloom again in the Spring.  The somewhat sexist ending of the tale has the reluctant nymph being transformed into a thorny vine as punishment. Ironically, the flowers of smilax often have a nasty odor, inspiring the nickname cadaver flower. Sounds like Zeus was really down on the poor maid. Still, some of the local plants may display a pretty green leaf in the cold times of the year, but curious youth should beware of the thorns year round.