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Brier, Brier, Greenbrier

Old County Road to Blair's Pond

I guess I hadn’t really given greenbriers too much thought until I recently took a hike with some naturalist friends from New Castle County. We were having a really difficult time trying to weave our way through the absolute tangle of razor-sharp spines and sinewy greenbrier vines. Strangely the Common or Round-leaved Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) isn’t a problem in New Castle County.

Impenetrable Common Greenbrier stems

Since I grew up with them, the greenbrier was just another one of those things you learned to avoid, like poison ivy, mosquitoes, and chiggers. Many times, when hunting rabbit or squirrel, you would encounter a curtain of razor-wire like vines that you needed to skirt around. Leather gloves and canvas hunting pants offered little, to no protection.

Common Greenbrier well protected stems

There are four species of greenbrier, that I am aware of, on the Nature Preserve lands. By far the most common and noticeable type is the Common Greenbrier. It grows in forests, woodland edges, fencerows, and swamps and doesn’t seem too particular about the soil type or the amount of sun or shade. They can grow so densely that you must travel around a patch rather than attempt to struggle through. The green, strong vines may climb by means of tendrils to 30 or more feet. The stems are well protected by numerous long, extremely sharp thorns, especially on the lower portions. Farther up the stems, out of reach of grazers, the canes usually have far fewer spines and in some species those portions may actually be smooth. I have witnessed firsthand what happens when the supporting bush or tree falls. Since the vines cannot support themselves, they fall to earth as well and are quickly eaten by deer. The tender new shoots of greenbrier are a trailside snack for humans, as well. They have a green, nutty taste that reminds me of asparagus. No wonder the deer relish them so much.

Common Greenbrier edible shoots

During the spring and early summer when new growth is present, it is not uncommon to see large areas along a trail, where all the tip shoots are clipped off. It doesn’t seem to affect the amount of briers present. Recognize Common Greenbrier by the shiny green almost round or slightly heart-shaped leaves in summer. The vines are deciduous and drop their leaves in winter. The stems are green and very strong, approximately one-fourth of an inch in diameter, with long yellow-green spines that are dark at the tip. These stems grow from a long underground stem that is difficult to pull up.

Common Greenbrier - underground runner and vertical shoots
Robber fly with prey - Shiny leaves of common greenbrier

The inconspicuous flowers are chartreuse green. The fruits are spherical, very dark blue-black, pea-sized berries in loose clusters, a favorite food of many songbirds.

Common Greenbrier flowers
Common greenbrier unripe fruits
Common Greenbrier ripe fruits

As you are hiking and enjoying the common greenbrier, you may notice a smaller, more delicate looking species growing along our forested trails. These plants have leaves that are smaller, thinner, more elongated, and often have whitish blotches, or spots, on the upper surface. They may stand upright to a height of 15 or 20 inches on dark, wiry stems, with thin, bristle-like thorns. The undersurface of the leaf is greenish white, or glaucous (a term botanists use). This is the Glaucous Greenbrier (Smilax glauca).

Glaucus Greenbrier Mottled leaves
Glaucus Greenbrier trailing over ground

If conditions are right, with a good support, rich, wet soil, and open shade of hardwoods, they can climb to several yards in height. The stems at ground level are dark brown and well-armed with numerous, closely spaced needle-like spines. Although not completely evergreen, a few leaves often remain on the vines during the coldest months. The leaves at this season sometimes mature to a deep bronze color.

Glaucus Greenbrier bronze winter leaves
Glaucus Greenbrier winter leaves

The dark blue fruits, in small clusters, are somewhat smaller than common greenbrier but still relished by songbirds. You can find these plants nearly everywhere, but I would suggest looking along the swamp side of the old county road at Blair’s Pond where the Tantrough Branch enters the pond. Along the shores of Abbott’s Pond on the Morton and Lindale Tract is another good spot.

Glaucus Greenbrier leaf view detail
Cinnamon Ferns- companion to swamp greenbriers

Both previous species have fruits that are blue or blue-black. Delaware has only one species of greenbrier that has red fruit. I had read about this species for many years but never actually seen one.

Red-berried in Blair's Swamp

One early spring day in 1995, a dozen participants and I went on a nature canoe trip on Blair’s Pond. We were enjoying the Canada Geese, mallard ducks, cattail seed heads, etc. One thing we discovered was lots of deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata) growing in the headwaters of the pond, around the tree boles, tussocks, and islets of the swamp. Also growing in quite soggy soil at the edge of the pond and climbing among the shrubs was the Red-berried Greenbrier (Smilax Walteri). This was a first time for all of us. Now that I am familiar with this vine, I am surprised that I hadn’t discovered it sooner.

Red-berried Greenbrier stem detail

Since that beginning, I have seen it on other local millponds. It grows on both the Tantrough Stream edges and the Johnson’s Branch streamside as well. If you are canoeing on Blairs pond, look for it along the shore on the Nature Preserve side. Plants can be seen from the forest trail as well. Good binoculars will help you identify these vines from a distance. The vines climb by means of tendrils to a height of 10-20 feet and are somewhat more delicate in appearance than the common greenbrier. The most spectacular field mark is the brilliant red, globular fruit in winter.

Red-berried colorful fruits + one dried leaf

If you are unable to physically get to those vines at either Blair’s Pond or Haven Lake, you can see a few from your vehicle where Meadowbrook Lane crosses Johnson’s Branch. Be aware of the traffic and look in the shrubs on the east, or Haven Lake side. They are most easily spotted by their bright red fruit. The Laurel-leaved Greenbrier (Smilax laurifolia) is the largest, most robust member of the Smilax genus growing in our area, and the most difficult to locate. It was, however, the third of four species I learned to identify.

Laurel-leaved Greenbrier - climbimg high

As teenagers there was a very special part of the Tantrough forest along the branch that we liked to visit. This spot was just downstream from where Teatown Road crosses the stream. The water in that portion was crystal clear and fed by several springs on either side of the branch. Red Maples, hollies, gums, and fringe trees reflected on the surface. Various grasses, iris, and sedges grew along the shoreline as well as rare swamp pink (Helonias bullata), which we thought of as “normal”. Perhaps 25 feet overhead, vining through the understory trees, grew laurel-leaved greenbrier with its beautiful, glossy, evergreen leaves in pinnate sprays emerging from the upper-most canes.

Laurel-leaved Greenbrier - leaf detail

The soft sunlight filtering down through that verdant green canopy, the perfume of the fringe trees, the regal elegance of the swamp pinks made this a magical spot, remin- iscent of some swamp in the deep south. Plus, if we got a good running start, we could leap from Sussex County all the way into Kent County. How good can it get? Sadly, I must report that this spot is mostly gone and was developed into a small housing development. There are still a few clumps of laurel-leaf greenbrier that exist on the Tantrough drainage as well as a couple near Abbott’s Mill on Johnson’s Branch that I know of. Because it only grows in the soggiest soil of the deep swamp in association with cinnamon ferns, sphagnum moss, and poison sumac, it is unlikely that you will see it without someone as a guide. It is easier to spot in winter using binoculars when other leaves have fallen. However, keep your eyes open and you might find some. It is more common farther south in the Millsboro, Cypress Swamp, Gumboro, and Seaford area. The stout stems emerge from large clumps. Each stem, approximately five-eighths inch in diameter, is viscously armed with numerous strong, needle-sharp, dark spines.

Laurel-leaf Greenbrier - viscous spines
Laurel-leaf Greenbriar - smooth upper stems and tendrils

The upper bamboo-like stems are smooth and prickle free. The leaves are oval, thick, leathery, glossy green with smooth (not toothed) edges. Flowers occur only on the uppermost stem tips. The fruits are blue-black berries.

Laurel-leaf Greenbrier - few dried fruit

Several people I have shown stem samples to, have confused the stems with those of Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa- more about them in a later post), however walking stick is an upright shrub and never a climbing vine. See comparison photo.

L-R, Common, Glaucus, Red-berried, Laurel-leaf, Devil's Walking Stick comparison
Oops. Rough Green Snake - not a greenbrier stem

If you see laurel-leaved greenbrier growing at other locations than those I have mentioned, I would appreciate learning of them. You can reach me through our editor.

So, dust off the kayak, pull on some boots, grab a friend and those binoculars, then see what you can discover.

Happy Hiking! Photos by the author.

Your Path to Adventure, J. Isaacs Swamp Trail

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