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Mr. Smarty Plants - Are Smilax species toxic?

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Friday - October 23, 2009

From: Griffin, GA
Region: Southeast
Topic: Poisonous Plants
Title: Are Smilax species toxic?
Answered by: Nan Hampton

QUESTION:

I have a plant that the agriculture department told me was similax. I have a severe allergic reaction to it, after digging up the roots (potato) and burning them. I had a feeling my lungs inside were on fire. They told me however that there is nothing in this weed that could cause such an allegic reaction. If that is so, why do I start with a rash like poison ivy, next time it is worse and finally we have to keep an epi-pen in my pocket if I am outside working in my flowers or cutting grass. I have made 4 trips to the ER this summer, as in the past 5 yrs.Could you please tell me if the africulure dept is mistaken? Your help is greatly appreciated, as none of the Drs in the ER know what similax, green brier, or cat brier is. Thanks in advance for your help.

ANSWER:

I think you must mean Smilax.  You can see by the distribution maps from the USDA Plants Database that there are several species of Smilax that grow in Georgia.  I suspect that the agriculture department meant one of the following  Smilax bona-nox (saw greenbrier)Smilax laurifolia (laurel greenbrier), Smilax rotundifolia (roundleaf greenbrier), Smilax glauca (cat greenbrier), Smilax smallii (lanceleaf greenbrier), Smilax tamnoides (bristly greenbrier) or Smilax walteri (coral greenbrier).

Whichever Smilax species it might be, I could find no entry in any toxic plant database for any species in the genus Smilax.  The Botanical Dermatology Database lists the only possible injury from any Smilax species as being a mechanical injury from the thorns.  Indeed, concoctions of the roots have been used as folk medicines for various skin diseases as well as to make the drink sarsaparilla.  It is also used as a dietary supplement to increase strength in the belief that the body converts it into extra testosterone.

You obviously had a reaction to something but I suspect it was not to the Smilax itself.  As I see it, there are several possibilities:

1)  You came in contact with another plant growing with the Smilax that caused your dermatalogical reaction, e.g., Toxicodendron pubescens (Atlantic poison oak), Toxicodendron radicans (eastern poison ivy), or Toxicodendron vernix (poison sumac).  Breathing smoke from burning Toxicodendron species would cause a reaction in the lungs.

2)  The Smilax that you came in contact with had been treated with some sort of herbicide that caused your reaction.

3)  The agriculture department misidentified the plant and what you had was one of the poison oak/ivy/sumac plants listed above.

If you discover that your plant is, or is mixed in with, poison ivy/oak/sumac, you might like to read about ways to control it.

 

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