The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 10, 2009




(Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Many of my formative years were spent in a boarding school run by the Presbyterian Church. We were not encouraged to commemorate Good Friday in evocative crafts like making crowns of thorns. The seeds of rebellion, sown back then, continue to sprout and prompted by the bold graphic thorniness of the Greenbrier, I decided to give it a try. It’s a nasty business and I don’t recommend it unless you are the hair-shirt kind in need of a thorn in your flesh, in which case this would be quite suitable.

Name: The common Greenbrier or Round-leaved Greenbrier is Smilax rotundifolia. Smilax is a large genus with hundreds of species and some of the common names are used for more than one species. These names include catbrier (perhaps because catbirds nest in it or perhaps because it can scratch like a cat), horsebrier, hellfetter, the blasphemy vine (because of what you might say when caught in it), stretchberry (because of the elastic nature of the seed coverings) and my favorite – tramps’ troubles. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal on April 7, 1857 “Catbrier (Smilax) they call here ‘the devil’s wrapping yarn.’”

When and where found: The common Greenbrier is a woody perennial native to the eastern U.S. You can find it all year round. There are some substantial tangly thickets beside a vernal pool in the Greenough woods and also around the edge of the Cranberry Bog. It likes sunlight and is quite vigorous in even poor soil but does not do so well in heavy forest shade. It is happy as an edge dweller.

Distinguishing characteristics: Greenbriers are the only woody vine in the northeast with both tendrils and thorns. The stems of the Common Greenbrier are smooth and green with thorns along the whole length but none rising from the leaf nodes. Other thorny Smilax species have thorns only on the lower parts of the stems or at the leaf nodes. The tendrils grow in pairs. The leaves are roundish as you would expect for something called “rotundifolia.” The flowers are small, clustered, and of a yellowish-green color. The berries are black.

Food for foragers: Common Greenbrier is foraged by birds like ruffed grouse, catbirds and hermit thrushes. It is also eaten by White-tailed Deer and is one of the many wild plants that humans can forage for salad greens in the spring. New York-based forager, Steve Brill, calls it a “divine vine” with a “piercing sweet-sour flavor” and says that the newest leaves, tendrils and shoots in the late spring or early summer are still soft enough to eat as salad greens. He also recommends it as a garnish for Baba Ghanoush. The berries are best left for the birds or used to make a blue dye. The roots, if beaten, battered, washed, strained, pained, coaxed and pleaded with are reputed to yield a reddish gelatin-like substance. The effort would be worth it if the product cured cancer but it is used for thickening soup. It can also be mixed with tannic acid and applied to bites and abrasions which you probably would have plenty of after harvesting the roots.

Sources: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb; Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean; The Shrub Identification Book, George W. D. Symonds; The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Andrew Eastman and Amelia Hansen; The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Journal edited by Bradford Torrey.

A crown of thorns made out of Greenbrier. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito