This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Smilax rotundifolia, known commonly as Roundleaf Greenbrier, or more interestingly, Sarsaparilla. The fact that these plants are valuable as wild edibles and medicinals are evidence that God doesn’t create anything without a purpose, and that everything that grows in the forests and fields has a use… because I absolutely despise them. My hatred of greenbriers goes back to my early childhood, when I got hung up in a patch of them while exploring the woods. I’ve had to contend with them all my life, whether it’s hacking my way through them on a search & rescue mission, clearing them to clean up the Proving Ground, or even pulling them out of the garden. In SAR, we call them “wait-a-minute vines,” since that’s what you’ll be saying to your partner after you get caught in them. They’re tough, extremely thorny, and tenacious. They climb high in the trees and their roots run deep, making them difficult to eradicate. I probably dislike them even more than poison ivy, which is saying something. But, there’s more to them than being a royal pain in the ass. Much more, in fact.
Greenbriers are a woody perennial vine, native to the entirety of the Eastern Woodlands, from Florida to Nova Scotia and from the Atlantic to Oklahoma. They can grow fifty to sixty feet up a tree, as long as they have enough light and good support. The vine itself can be as much as half an inch in diameter, and is covered with sharp thorns. The leaves are a waxy, glossy green, alternately branching, and 2”-6” long. Older plants will have tiny white blooms followed by blue-black, waxy berries. They are most commonly found in second or third growth forests that are less than thirty years old – in lay terms, brushy woods. They’re also found in abandoned fields, roadsides, and abandoned homestead sites. If you’ve ever bushwhacked or hunted in an area like this, you’ve probably encountered greenbriers growing in huge, impassable thickets. Greenbrier grows from a chunky, tuberous rhizome, so a briarpatch may actually just be one plant growing out of a huge root. This root can be up to 15’ long, which is part of the reason these plants are so hard to get rid of.
Despite its thorny appearance, greenbrier is a quality wild edible. If you read our post from a few weeks ago about Bull Thistle, you’ll remember that thorny, unfriendly-looking plants are often the safest ones to eat. Since they’ve got a layer of spikes to protect them, they never needed poisons. The best part of the greenbrier to eat are the shoots. Either mid-spring, or any part of the summer if they’ve been cut back, you’ll want to look for the fresh, bright green stem tips tipped with curly tendrils. They’ll be the most tender and least bitter. Much like processing asparagus, try to snap the stem off at a natural breaking point. If it doesn’t break cleanly, move further towards the tip. The shoots rarely have thorns, and those that are present soften up with cooking and aren’t noticeable. You can cut them off if they bother you. The shoots are good boiled, steamed, or sautéed in butter. They have a flavor and texture somewhere between green beans and asparagus. As greenbriers grow in thickets, if you can find one, you’ve probably found a whole meal’s worth of edible greens. This can be useful in a wilderness survival situation, as you’re expending fewer calories foraging. These tender shoots can be a sign to help point you towards higher-protein food sources as well… briarpatches are a magnet for game for two reasons: One is that deer, rabbits, and other herbivores love greenbriers more than just about anything. Briars are evergreen, so although the winter stems aren’t especially tasty, they’re often one of the few green things to eat in the cold. Nibbled stems are a telltale sign of a frequently traveled game trail year-round. What’s more, rabbits and deer are drawn to the cover briarpatches provide. Since it’s difficult, slow, and noisy to travel through them, they’re popular bedding areas.
In addition to the shoots, the roots are edible as well. Those huge, tenacious rhizomes are a good source of carbohydrates, which are vital to keeping your energy up. Smaller ones (finger size or smaller) can be cooked and eaten as they are, and larger ones can be boiled, dried, and pounded into a powder for thickening soups and stews.
Greenbrier root has been used medicinally since time immemorial. This is where things get interesting. If you’ve been following #WildEdibleWednesday for some time, you’ve heard us talk about the original root beer – a frontier medicinal concoction made from native herbs, which may or may not be fermented. We’ve covered two of them in the past – Sassafrass and Striped Wintergreen. The third is Sarsaparilla. Although Sarsaparilla isn’t a common ingredient in many things nowadays, it’s still used in many herbal medicines and small-batch craft root beers. The sarsaparilla that’s generally recognized and used for this purpose is Aralia nudicaulis, which even goes by Wild Sarsaparilla. But the original sarsaparilla is definitely greenbrier. When the Spanish landed in Florida in the 1500s, they were setting foot into an alien world. The subtropical rainforest and swamps were vastly different from the dry, dusty, Mediterranean climate of Spain. So they named the plants after things they were familiar with. Greenbrier was called Zarza parilla, or “small thorny grape vine.” When the British took over Florida some centuries later, their ears heard Sarsaparilla. In pioneer days, before store-bought medicine was widely available, a root beer made from sassafras, striped wintergreen, and sarsaparilla was a common treatment for whatever ailed you. It was used to treat coughs, colds, fevers, gout, rheumatism, psoriasis, menstrual problems, liver disease, sore muscles, and much more. In fact, during the Civil War, the Union blockade of Southern ports prevented any medicine from the outside world from getting in. Legendary botanist, physician, and chemist Francis Peyer Porcher was tasked with coming up with homegrown replacements for all manner of medicines, household goods, and war supplies that could be sourced locally throughout the South. His recipe for root beer saved countless Confederate lives, and became a standard for decades: “The [sarsaparilla] root is mixed with molasses and water in an open tub, a few seeds of parched corn or rice are added, and after a slight fermentation is seasoned with sassafras.” Dr. Porcher is being vindicated by modern science. Many of the phytosterols contained in sarsaparilla root have been shown to balance hormone levels in both men and women. A U.S. patent was awarded in 2003 to a pharmaceutical company that successfully synthesized a Smilax compound for treating autoimmune disorders and chronic inflammation. In 2008 a study was published which suggests that the plant has antiviral qualities, and it has also held promise in anti-cancer research. The roots are dense, so to get the greatest medicinal benefit out of them, a decoction, or even better, a tincture, is the way to go.
Some plants are easy to love. They’re beautiful. Fragrant. Delicious. Greenbriers are not one of those. But just because they’re thorny and difficult to live with, doesn’t mean they’re not useful. And hopefully, that’s what we hope you gain from this post today. That no matter what, every plant in the woods has a use, and sometimes a very valuable one. Greenbriers are edible (and pretty tasty at that), and powerfully medicinal. Just try to remember that next time you’re trying to hack your way through a thicket of them.