This bramble can be very useful to wildlife, but can give gardeners headaches

When you hear the word “Greenbrier” you may think of the idyllic resort in West Virginia, but there’s another greenbrier in Maryland that is not as idyllic as the historic, beloved resort. The common, native greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia — smilax is Greek for “clasping” and rotundifolia translates to “round leaved” — is a perennial woody plant with prickles, round to heart shaped glossy leaves, greenish flowers, blue-black berries and winding tendrils used to climb and smother other plants, shrubs, trees and blanket buildings and fences. It forms dense tangles with its vines making areas confiscated by this nuisance plant very difficult or impossible to traverse. It is an outlier vine inasmuch as most vines are not armed with thorns; those of the greenbrier are almost 1/3 inch long, green with a black tip. Unfortunately, for those areas attacked by this barbed wire of the plant world, it can leave deep cuts and scratches on the skin and ruin a good sweater. 

The common greenbrier is not a picky squatter. This bramble likes a variety of habitat such as rocky areas, wet or dry soils, sandy soil, sun or shade, forests, fields, garden areas and pond edges. Its vines will span up to 20 feet smothering anything in its path and forming three foot tall thickets. It spreads by seeds (1-3 per berry) transported by birds and other animals on their bodies or in their scat and also by water as well as by rhizomes. These rhizomes can linger for many years after aboveground material has been culled or burned; the root system is shallow. The flowers have a carrion-like odor that attracts flies, the plants main pollinators.

Greenbrier has an extremely high flammability rating and should not be growing anywhere near your home, farm buildings, or plants and trees grown for market. Its waxy leaves are resistant to glyphosate herbicide application and the plant will often return in a robust state. Fall is the best time to apply the herbicide to cut stems rather than to the leafy plant itself. This treatment must be ongoing to rid areas of this tenacious vine. Never put this plant in your compost pile; you’ll regret it.

There are benefits from the thorny greenbrier. In late winter and early spring, many birds eat the fruit of common greenbrier such as northern cardinals, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, wild turkey, and white-throated sparrows. Deer, raccoons, opossum, gray squirrels, skunks and rabbits also browse the leaves and shoots of this vine. It also serves as a host to a variety of moths. The tight woven thickets this vine creates provides excellent ground cover for birds and small mammals. This feisty plant is also a consideration for planting where trees are not wanted, such as cleared areas for power lines. It has been successful in denying trees a foothold for as long as 15 years. 

Native Americans used this plant for medicinal purposes. The leaves were used in a poultice to treat burns and a tea was prepared to relieve upset stomachs and joint pain. The roots and shoots were a food source. The roots also produce a gel-like substance that was used as a thickener, similar to flour. Despite its history in Native American culture, it is not implied here that anyone ingest this plant in any form. In 2001 research suggested that this pioneer plant — first to become established in a disturbed or barren area — has other medical uses such as in the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. No conclusions have yet been reached.

As with many “nuisance” plants, both negative and positive qualities should be considered when evaluating a plant’s worth in the landscape. Common greenbrier is no exception to this. As you can see from the information provided here, in natural areas, this bramble can be very useful to wildlife. However, in the tamed garden landscape, it can cause much grief to the gardener. Consider this plant’s location and impact upon the landscape before deciding to rid your land of this prickly native. If you take on the eradication of greenbrier from your landscape, you may need to visit the “other” Greenbrier to relax and recuperate. 

Barbara has maintained over 80 acres of forest land in Maryland since 2000. Greenbrier is a constant companion. Barbara can be reached at barbara.s.aiken@gmail.com.

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Barbara enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland.