Wicked Weeds: A Tangled Tale Of Thorny Smilax
By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
Certainly, Sleeping Beauty’s narcoleptic respite was secured by this plant. It is the very image of a noxious bramble which could be conjured up by an imaginative and resolute wicked witch.
The sinewy, winding tangle of vines studded with thorns resembling sharks teeth, only more of them and sharper, would easily deter all but the stout of heart in pursuit of a romantic ideal. The prince in the story had to have thick armor, a sharp sword, and a real need to succeed to get through this thicket.
While smilax may not be deliberately guarding any princesses in Leon County, it can still put up an intimidating barrier to man and beast. Also known as green briar, cat briar, and other sometimes graphic terms, the native plant thrives in this area.
In Greek mythology, Smilax was a wood nymph who was transformed into a bramble after the unfulfilled and tragic love of a mortal man. Her final form in this fable was a reflection of her character.
Botanically, smilax is found in tropic to temperate zones. There are about 350 species worldwide and 20 domestically.
The plant is very vigorous and is equipped with an enviable array of survival traits. It is ready to take every advantage to flourish and inhabit new territory, even among the most hostile conditions.
Individual plants can withstand harsh treatment and environments. If burned or mowed to the soil’s surface, they will regenerate from a segmented rhizome root system. Rhizome roots are the subterranean stems which spread roots and runners from its bulbous root nodes. If pulled up, the rhizome root system will separate at joints. Even the smallest piece of root left in the dirt will generate a new plant.
Smilax has the additional resource of extra-floral nectaries, nectar-producing glands physically separate from the flowers. These nectaries may function as an organ for the plant to rid itself of metabolic wastes and/or to attract beneficial insects for defense.
Ants are especially attracted to the extra-floral nectaries in smilax and may establish mounds close by. The ants defend the smilax from herbivores which eat the leaves, if they can get past the thorns.
In addition to spreading by its root system, smilax produces berries which contain a seed. The berries appear in late summer or early autumn and ripen to a blue-black or red color, depending on the individual species.
The berries are usually consumed in winter after the smilax loses its leaves. Birds and animals will deposit the seed at a new site. Best chances for the seed to germinate occur after it is exposed to a freeze.
Smilax vines will climb up trees, fence posts, and any other stationary object to get better sun exposure. They have been known to reach over 30 feet in height, but do not tend to kill their host by shading out the sun.
Ants commonly use the vines as a readily available pathway on foraging trips. The ants may establish colonies in elevated locations courtesy of smilax vines.
Smilax can be controlled with selective herbicides and persistent digging. Keep in mind, though, fresh seed can arrive at any moment even without the aid of a wicked witch.
Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director and Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent. For gardening questions, email us at AskAMasterGardener@ifas.ufl.edu