Smilax really shines this time of year.
Its strings of bright green leaves stand out against the bare branches, browns and grays of our wintertime forests around Lake Martin.
Alabama is home to a large number of native smilax vines – the Alabama Plant Atlas website from the University of West Alabama lists 13 different species, though not all are found in our area. Most of them include the words “greenbriar” or “carrion flower” in their common names.
Worldwide, more than 300 species of smilax have been identified.
This one is Smilax laurifolia, or Laurel Leaf Greenbriar, and it is one that you would expect to see around the lake because it grows in wet forest areas, in swamps and along the edges of lakes and ponds throughout Alabama.
This plant is also called bamboo vine and blaspheme vine. Its native range is throughout the southeastern U.S. and beyond – west to Texas and Oklahoma and north along the East Coast to New Jersey. It is also found in nearby islands: Cuba to the south of Florida and the Bahamas to the east of the Carolinas.
Laurel Leaf Greenbriar is the largest Smilax species found in Alabama and can grow 20 to 30 feet long. It is a perennial vine that climbs into bushes and trees using tendrils that coil around branches and anything else it can get a handle on. From a distance, this greenbriar can make a deciduous bush appear to be an evergreen, but once you get up close, it is obvious that bush is bare and the vine that is growing through it is loaded with bright green leaves.
As you might expect from the term “greenbriar,” Laurel Leaf Greenbriar has lots of prickles on the lower part of its stem. The stem is green when young but turns dark as it matures.
This is a plant that has rhizomes, or “runner roots,” at its foundation. The rhizomes are thick and reddish in color.
Leathery green leaves are lance-shaped with a rounded base and pointed on the end. The leaves stay on 12 months a year, and one distinguishing characteristic is that the leaves tend to stand up vertically from the vine on reddish petioles (the stem-like structure that attaches the leaves to the stem). A look-alike cousin, Jackson Vine or Smilax Smallii, lives in drier parts of our area, and its smaller leaves are held out horizontally or droop below the stem. Another identifying mark for Laurel Leaf Greenbriar is that the undersides of the leaves have a distinct vein running through the middle, while lateral veins are not nearly as apparent.
This vine blooms with fragrant, yellowish or whitish flowers with six sepals during the late spring and summer months and produces clumps of shiny black berries. Laurel Leaf Greenbriar produces flowers that are either male or female. It takes two plants growing within pollination distance to create fertile seed.
The vine grows well in many wet environments and can handle acidic, neutral or alkaline soils and anything from full sunlight to dappled shade.
Laurel Leaf Greenbriar stems are edible when young and green and are likened to asparagus, and they can be cooked the same, too.
Native Americans used this plant in a number of ways. The Cherokee used it to treat sores and burns. The leaves and green stems steeped in water make a tea that has been used to treat rheumatism and stomach issues.
Members of the Choctaw tribe ground up this plant’s root-like rhizome and used it to make bread and cakes. The powdered rhizome of this plant is also used as a soup seasoning.
One of the best uses of this smilax – and others that live here, including Jackson Vine – is in winter flower arrangements. Christmas wreathes made by rolling up a long, leafy smilax vine are traditions in some parts of the South, and it’s common to see this pretty vine included in big showy arrangements for weddings and parties this time of year.
Smilax is a hearty plant that can quickly recover from fire and competes with nearby plants.
It benefits wildlife in at least two ways: by providing cover and berries that are eaten by birds and by providing leaves for hungry whitetail deer to browse over winter.
If you are having trouble identifying smilax species, the University of Florida’s Extension Service has produced an excellent document titled Key to Nine Common Smilax Species of Florida. It can be found at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FR/FR37500.pdf
Information for this article came from the University of West Alabama’s Alabama Plant Atlas website, the North Carolina State University’s Extension Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Florida Extension Service.