Greenbrier, Catbrier — a Smilax by any name

Smilax vine just leafing out for spring

Most folks hate thorny vines on general principles — unless they’re roses, maybe — then all is forgiven. But our native vines — whether thorny or smooth — deserve more respect than they are usually accorded.

I don’t know which species of Smilax is in this photo. It is growing up a Musclewood tree adjacent to my creek. Call it Catbrier or Greenbrier or Smilax spp., if you don’t feel like ascertaining its full botanical name, but don’t necessarily yank it out the minute you see it.

I pull up Smilax if its growth is going to interfere with something I want to show off — say, one of the native deciduous azaleas I’ve planted. But when I spot it growing among native trees in one of our less supervised natural areas, I usually leave it alone.

Because Smilax is a native vine, it’s not invasive. Compared to the destructive habits of Japanese Honeysuckle or Porcelainberry, it is downright well-mannered. One of the reasons this native vine doesn’t take over forests is because it is eaten by wildlife.

The vines remain green throughout the year; I often find them eaten to the ground by deer in late winter, when food is scarcest for them. And then there are those berries you see in the photo. My references tell me they are important food sources for Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, and at least 40 species of songbirds. Rabbits find the leaves and young shoots tasty, and beavers think the tubers of some species are haute cuisine.

With so much wildlife dependent on Smilax as a food source, I feel obliged to tolerate it in my landscape — most of the time. If a thorny vine snags me more than once as I walk past, I confess I will cut back the offender. Of course, it sprouts from its roots again eventually, so I’ve only temporarily slowed it down anyway.

The next time you encounter a thorny Smilax vine in your yard, consider leaving it where you find it. After all, it really does belong in our Piedmont landscapes. And the birds, beavers, and bunnies will thank you.

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