Anyone who’s ever tried to make their way through thickets thick with greenbrier knows that they’re formidable plants, tough vines armed with sharp, skin-piercing prickles along its stems. Saw greenbrier, Smilax bona-nox, is no exception.
In fact, saw greenbrier has an extra layer of defense that most of its cousins lack: prickles on its leaves.
Saw greenbrier is one of 12 greenbriers, or members of the Smilax genus, native to the Sunshine state. It’s found in most of Florida’s 67 counties. There is a difference of opinion concerning whether Broward County is part of saw greenbrier’s range, however. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s PLANTS database says no, while the venerable Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants gives it a thumbs up.
Beyond Florida, saw greenbrier is found as far north as Illinois and Ohio, east to Maryland, Delaware and Virginia down along the Atlantic Coast to Florida and west to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Saw greenbrier is a thick, woody vine that can form dense tangles and climb to the tops of trees. It is an evergreen to semi-evergreen or even deciduous (drops its leaves entirely), depending on how far north it’s growing. It is a perennial.
The stems are smooth, pale green, become woody with age and armed with sharp prickles along their length. Saw greenbrier has tendrils, curly appendages that wrap around the branches of neighboring trees and shrubs and enable the plant to climb. It spreads via rhizomes, or underground stems. The rhizomes give saw greenbrier a degree of fire tolerance. A blaze will top-kill the plant but won’t affect the rhizomes, which will resprout.
The leaves are dark green mixed with gray or light green blotches. They are simple and arranged alternately along the stem. Each leaf has three lobes and roughly take the shape of either a triangle (as pictured above) or a heart, but like other greenbriers, saw greenbrier’s leaves can vary widely even on the same plant. The leaves thicken and become stiff as they age.
A thick band runs along the edges, which can be armed with small prickles, but not all leaves will have them. There also can be prickles along the underside of the center vein. The only other greenbrier species to have prickles on its leaves are roundleaf greenbrier, S rotundafolia, and bristly greenbrier, S tamnoides. As you might guess from the name, the leaves of roundleaf are shaped differently than our guy, and in the case of bristly greenbrier, the prickles are so small that a magnifying glass is needed to see them.
On saw greenbrier, the prickles and lower main stems are scaly or scurfy, the major characteristic that definitely separates saw greenbrier from its cousins. See them and you know you're definitely dealing with saw greenbrier regardless of any other features or the lack thereof, but you're going to need a hand lens, however.
Saw greenbrier blooms in spring, but the flowers can appear year-round down south. It is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow are separate plants and the presence of both are needed to produce fruit. The flowers of both sexes are an unspectacular green and appear in umbrella-shaped clusters called umbels.
The flowers give way to small, quarter-inch berries that turn from green to black when ripe. Black bears, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, wood ducks, wild turkeys and a variety of song birds dine on them.
And unfortunately for saw greenbrier, the prickles aren’t enough to discourage white-tailed deer from browsing on it. The plant does provide cover for a variety of small animals.
Native Americans used the leaves to roll cigarettes; the young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked (tastes like asparagus, we understand) and the roots can be cooked, ground and made into gelatin. The berries can be eaten out of hand — they’re quite chewy, we understand. The plant has been used medicinally to increase urine flow — a diuretic — and to make a tea used as a general tonic and relieve stomach problems. The leaves have been applied to the skin to treat boils, and the prickles used as a counter irritant.
Other common names include catbrier, bullbrier, stretchberry vine, Chinabrier and tramp’s trouble. Greenbrier is also spelled greenbriar. It is a member of Smilacaceae, the 200-plus member greenbrier family.