Bristly greenbrier is a stout, perennial woody vine with bristlelike black spines, climbing high by tendrils to a length of 40 feet.
Leaves are alternate, simple, 2–6 inches long, 2–5½ inches wide, oval, egg-shaped, heart-shaped, to broadly lance-shaped; tip blunt to pointed; margin entire but sometimes minutely toothed; upper surface green, smooth, shiny, with the 5–7 main veins sunken; lower surface paler, smooth. Leaf stalk gradually expands into the blade, often twisted and bent. Leaves persist into winter. This greenbrier species is among the most variable in leaf size and shape.
Stems are green with minute white dots, finely grooved, with few or no prickles on the outer branches; young prickles yellow, older prickles black throughout, round, bristlelike; tendrils arise in pairs at the base of leaf stalks. Bark is green to brown, hard, densely covered with prickles and hairs; prickles on bark nearly black, up to ¼ inch long.
Flowering is in May–June. Flowers yellowish green, small, with male and female flower clusters on the same plant, in clusters of 5–26 flowers; cluster stalks ½–1¼ inches long, much longer than the leaf stalks; petals 6.
Fruits mature September–October. Fruit a bluish-black berry, usually lacking a whitish coating, about ¼ inch thick, globe-shaped; cluster stalks flattened and much longer than the leaf stalks. Seeds usually 1 (sometimes 2) per fruit.
Stems can be more than 42 feet long.
Occurs in mesic forests and stream banks, often in thickets, less commonly in drier forests, along edges of glades and prairies, and in fencerows. This is the most common species of Smilax in Missouri, and it almost certainly grows in every county.
Scattered throughout the state.
The greenbrier family is one of the few groups of monocot plants that can have woody stems. (Other monocots include grasses, orchids, lilies, and cattails.) There are 8 species of Smilax in Missouri; 4 are woody, perennial, and bear prickles (the stems are stout and are not easily crushed), and 4 are herbaceous, annual, and lack prickles (you can easily crush the stems, even when dry). If you have a hard time distinguishing between the different Smilax species, don’t feel bad; professional botanists often have trouble, too, especially if specimens are incomplete.
Joel Chandler Harris’s well-known “Tar-Baby” story, with its roots in African and Native American folklore, has a famous trickster character called Br’er Rabbit. In the story, Br'er Rabbit begs his ruthless captor, Br’er Fox, to please not fling him into the brier patch — which the mean-spirited fox does, not realizing the thorny thicket is exactly where the rabbit goes to escape his enemies. Many have suggested that this and similar nature tales were ways that enslaved Africans symbolically depicted a triumph over their own captors.
With proper pruning, this species can be trained into a hedge plant that will provide superior cover for birds and small mammals.
The various species of greenbriars have a long history of human use.
Wild edibles enthusiasts give high ratings to the various greenbriers. The fat, tender, fleshy stems of new growth can be snapped off and served as an asparagus-like vegetable served raw, cooked, or in a casserole. Here are some general suggestions:
The rootstocks can be made into a beverage similar to root beer.
There are purported medicinal uses as well.
The fruit is eaten by several species of birds, including cardinals, bobwhite, wild turkey, and ruffed grouse. Several mammals eat the fruits, too.
The leaves, stems, and fruit are browsed by deer.
The impenetrable thickets of the sprawling, prickly stems are great cover for birds and small mammals. Brown thrashers, gray catbirds, and many other songbirds use it for nesting habitat.
There are no sharp dividing lines between trees, shrubs, and woody vines, or even between woody and nonwoody plants. “Wood” is a type of tissue made of cellulose and lignin that many plants develop as they mature — whether they are “woody” or not. Trees are woody plants over 13 feet tall with a single trunk. Shrubs are less than 13 feet tall, with multiple stems. Vines require support or else sprawl over the ground.