Pull It or Plant It: Greenbriar

Apr 29, 2019 | Native Plants

ADA: I’m rooting for the underdog here — big time! It’s not that I’m suggesting anyone run out to their local garden center asking for a flat of greenbriar to plant around their mailbox. You can’t buy them anyway. But don’t knock Smilax bona-nox! This vicious vine has a few merits. The species name bona-nox translates as “goodnight” (charming, right?). I imagine the light blotches on its bright green leaves to be stars and galaxies in the evening sky. Spanish speakers know it as cortamecate, or “cut rope,” presumably referring to its handy ability to slice through things (admittedly including skin).

CM: When teaching volunteers and guests about smilax, I usually say, “Smilax does not make you smile” to help them remember the name. If you run into this thorny vine in the woods or your shaded backyard, your first reaction might be “Ow!” or perhaps something more colorful. It’s like a rose that’s all branch and thorn but no flower (technically not true … but bear with me). It will catch your sleeves or tear your skin when you reach in to extract a plastic bag it’s snagged from the air, and it often forms spiky thickets of vertical, pencil-thick vines covered in serious thorns. I haven’t yet found a pair of gloves with enough protection.


ADA: Songbirds, turkeys, ducks and various small animals relish greenbriar’s small, fleshy, dark berries. And dense, thorny tangles offer choice refuge for nurturing nestlings. Plus, domestic chickens race to it faster than any other kitchen scrap, suggesting its superior nutritional value.

CM: I can say that Wildflower Center land steward Dick Davis likes to nibble on its new growth when he’s out in the woods foraging, so I guess this plant is feeding someone. But even he describes his snacking as “an ongoing but ineffective control measure.”


ADA: Since its will to live is notably strong, perhaps you can search your heart to find acceptance, which may eventually lead to appreciation. Face it: Attempts to remove it are futile anyway. In fact, cutting old canes to the ground will only encourage them to resprout. In this way, you can “cultivate” hearty, asparaguslike shoots. Eat these! Leaves, stems and tendrils are quite tasty if you get them before the thorny prickles harden. You can browse them right off the vine — Bambi style — or cook them into a stir fry.

CMK: Smilax versus a line trimmer? A tangled mess. This plant will also wrap itself around mower blades. You’ll cut it back to the ground, season after season, year after year. Then you still have a second battle wrestling it into bags — and finding bags it won’t tear through. One day you’ll get serious and start to dig, only to find super-tough, lumpy tubers, formidable enough to outlast even the most determined efforts.


ADA: Seriously, most folks won’t want to deal with this feisty plant. But if you have it … you might as well make the best of it.

CM: If you want to keep someone out of a tree, this tough vine would surely deter their approach and ascent (it often grows into tree tops). So, as a security measure, it does have something to offer.