Worldwide there are about 300 to 350 species in the Smilax genus, in the family Smilaceae. Smilaxes grow in tropical, subtropical and temperate climates. The U.S. and Canada have about 20 species, while China has at least 80. Ongoing research may positively and accurately identify more species. Pending more research, some non-woody smilaxes, commonly named carrion flowers, have been and may yet be moved to the genus Nemexia.
Florida and the south and eastern U.S. have 12 distinct native species that closely resemble each other and are difficult for homeowners to identify correctly. Globally the most used common name is smilax; however, some older gardeners may still call these species catbriar, greenbriar or hogbriar. Sasparilla is an older common name for Florida’s S. pumila and Jamaican Smilax ornata.
Perennial smilaxes are flowering, climbing vines that are often thorny and usually develop woody stems. Smilax is important in the environment as food and shelter for wildlife. Songbirds depend on the fruit and seeds for nutrition. Wooly aphids feed on Smilax and these aphids are the only food for the uncommon-to-rare Harvester butterfly’s carnivorous caterpillar. Remove all the smilax and the Harvester would become extinct. There are less than 200 species of native butterflies that breed in Florida.
Historically, smilax has been used for herbal remedies, food and dyes. The large, hard underground rhizomes are edible and can be prepared by boiling, baking in a campfire or oven, or even cooking them in the microwave in the same manner as potatoes and sweet potatoes. One rare species, Smilax havanensis, is threatened in Florida due to its restricted small range. In West Florida’s Panhandle, two herbaceous annual smilaxes — S. ecirrhata and S. lasioneuron — are also rare species with limited range in Florida.
Smilax leaves are simple, alternate, usually with entire edges, not toothed margins and three or five veins that start at the base and meet at the apex tip. Small clusters of greenish, yellowish or brownish flowers produce small berries, 5 to 10 mm diameter, with one to four seeds inside. While young stems are fast growing and succulent, all nine widespread Florida smilaxes develop woody stems with age. Eight are evergreen or semi-evergreen. The other, S. walteri, is deciduous.
All spread via fat, hard underground runners called rhizomes and by seeds. All climb and twine using tendrils and/or prickles. Only Smilax pumila has no prickles on its stems, while the other eight have sharp, thorny prickles on the stems. Stems are usually green and angular or square in cross section. Because many smilax species have variable leaf shape and color, habitat — different kinds of plant communities where a plant lives — can be a key to plant identification.
The most common species in Florida is Earleaf Smilax (S. auriculata) in drier habitats and Saw Smilax or Greenbriar (S. bona-nox) in moister habitats. Read detailed descriptions next week in the Homefront.
For further reading, check these reliable sources:
- Guide to the Natural Communities of Florida (2010 edition), created by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI).
- The best book for understanding plant terminology is Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary, by J. G. Harris and M. W. Harris.
Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. Contact her at email@example.com or phone 352-249-6899.