Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Perseverance is a respectable trait in any person. Unfortunately, it is less than pleasant when applied to a thorny vine, such as smilax. Its determined nature is why it thrives in nearly every local yard and thicket, making itself nearly impossible to uproot and dispose of. When regarded as a survivalist, this stubborn plant is an impressive species.
Smilax puts up an intimidating barrier to man and beast when not camouflaged in greenery. 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 12 in Florida, with nine being common.
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 unfavorable 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 attract beneficial insects for pollination and 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 color. The berries are usually consumed in winter after the smilax loses it 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, like earlier this week.
Smilax vines will climb up trees, fence post, 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. Ants may establish colonies in above ground locations, courtesy of smilax vines which provide a wide reaching pathway.
Smilax can be controlled with some broadleaf herbicides, but repeated applications will be necessary. The best time to apply herbicides is in the early spring when the first leaves appear. Once the leaves return, smilax can be difficult to identify and control hidden the all the greenery common in Wakulla County.
To learn more about smilax in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or visit our website: https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/