The Problem is the Solution
Let me begin by saying that for years, my dislike to this plant bordered on religious fervor. However, we have quite a lot of it here at Tanglefoot Farm, and it’s darn near indestructible, so I’m gonna have to make my peace with it. Remembering the permaculture adage that “the problem is the solution” I realized that I need to shift my perspective in the matter, and see what solutions smilax has to offer.
Smilax is Edible
A quick google search revealed that Smilax is edible! That came as quite a shock, I mean, ow. Have you seen the thorns on some of these vines? But it’s true. The leaves and roots are edible. The flexible new shoots are edible raw, or cooked as you would asparagus. Young leaves can be eaten as fresh or cooked greens.
Several sources report smilax is quite tasty, although I’ll have to wait until Spring to try it. I did eat a few of the berries the other day. They are quite bland, and more seed than fruit, but the birds seem to appreciate them. Additionally, the root can be roasted, boiled, or dried and used as a thickening agent in soups & sauces. Interestingly, the smilax root is also the source of sarsaparilla, one of the main flavors in root beer. If it can go into root beer, it can’t be all bad.
Wildlife Food & Shelter
According to Deane Green, of eattheweeds.com, Smilax provides food and cover for over 40 species of birds. It is also a food source for rabbits, deer, and black bears. Fortunately, we have no black bears anywhere near Tanglefoot Farm! So the long and short of it is that Smilax is an important plant to keep for wildlife habitat. It’s so important as forage, in fact, that NRCS actually suggests fertilizing it.
But It’s Prickly
In spite of it’s evident uses, Smilax is still an incredible nuisance. With long thorns or hundreds of short bristly ones, Smilax will carve you up if you need to get through it. It can overwhelm and smother a tree. If there is nothing else to climb, it will climb itself, and form an extraordinarily dense mass of brambles.
Trying to clear these thickets will ruin a weed eater or even a chainsaw. Digging them out won’t work, either, as one little bitty bit of root will give rise to yet another greenbriar plant. Further, it’s nearly impossible to dig out because the rhizomes have a multitude of coarse wiry roots that just don’t let go of the ground.
Smilax laughs at chemical agents, even RoundUp mixed with diesel ( as recommended by Texas A&M). It has a waxy coating that protects it from such methods. Fire won’t kill it either. The plant above ground will burn, and new shoots will appear from the unharmed roots in a matter of days.
Truly, the only reasonable effort that can be made is mechanical control. Cut it down where it’s an issue. Pull it out of the trees and train it into mottes, or onto short supports for wildlife use. If it’s in the middle of the garden, a persistent campaign of digging it up may eventually prove successful, but just occasionally cutting it to the ground will probably be less work.
Management of Greenbriar
Here at Tanglefoot, I’ve decided on a compromise in regards to Greenbriar. Rather than completely eradicate it, we will simply manage it. I am digging it up in the areas we are cultivating (this is easiest after a rain), cutting it down occasionally in the pasture, and basically leaving it alone in the creek area we’ve designated as a wildlife corridor. Like most things in God’s green world, it serves a purpose. As a permaculturist, I can leverage the benefits offered, ie. edible greens and wildlife forage, while working with nature instead of against it.