Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smilax and the Greenbrier Family, Perennial Vine/Shrub

The Greenbrier genus (Smilax) contains approximately twenty-five species, but for right now I will focus on the species Bullbrier (Smilax Bona-nox) and Greenbrier (Smilax Rotundifolia) in the Smilacaceae (Catbrier) family.

Be sure to read my "Disclaimer - Eat At Your Own Risk" at :

Both of these are a popular trailside nibble.  Matter of fact, it is one of my favorites along the trail.  A few things that make it so popular with me are that it they are quite tastey, very nutritious and there is absolutely no cooking required for the tender young shoots, although cooking is also good if you have the time.

Bullbrier and Greenbrier are sometimes just called Smilax (referring to the genus).  Bullbrier is also sometimes called Sawbrier or Saw Greenbrier and Greenbriew is sometimes called Common Catbrier, Common Greenbrier or Roundleaf Greenbrier.

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Bullbrier (Smilax Bona-nox)
Smilax grows in the spring, summer and fall here in the southern U.S. It is the tender young ends that are both tender and completely edible. It is the tender new growth that you eat. You will see some with tender growth over a foot long in the spring and early summer, although it's been my experience that they average 6 to 8 inches long. Just break them off like asparagus. If it does not break easy, then you tried to get too far down the stem where it starts to get hard. Simply break closer to the end.

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The tender young ends are easy to distinguish.
 Saw Greenbrier (S. Bona-nox) , Roundleaf Greenbrier (S. Rotundifolia) and other Smilax species have a long history with the Native Americans on this continent.  According to Daniel E. Moerman's research, the Choctaw and Houma Indians used S. Bona-nox roots to make bread and cakes by drying and then making flour out of the roots.  In my opinion, it would take a lot of work as the large tubers of Smilax are very large and hard.  I would be interested in knowing how the gained more calories from eating the cakes they made than they actually spent in digging the tubers up and going through the difficult process of getting the flour out of the underground them.  In reality, many foragers contend that you burn too many calories getting the starch out of the roots and you receive back in nutritional calories eaten, but I am sure the Native Americans found a very efficient way to get the starch out of the large tubers, but that information may have been long lost.

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Above is a very large Smilax tuber I recently dug up.  You can get an estimate of the size by comparing to the shovel in the picture.
As far as I know, there are no poisonous look-a-likes for smilax, but there is something that looks similar which is poisonous. If you look close and pay attention, there's no way you can mistake this plant for young Cinnamon Vine, also called Chinese Yam. Remember Smilax is a brier, which means there are thorns. Cinnamon Vine also called Chinese Yam does not have thorns and the young shoots are very different than the smilax shown below.
Here's another picture of the tender young shoot; this one with longer tendrils.

A nice little batch of Smilax shoots.  Ten minutes to gather enough for a meal.

Cut it up (or just snap like green beans) to fit in your pan

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Melt butter, add a touch of water, a clear lid and steam on low for about 4 to 5 minutes.

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Finished product.

Add a little pepper and salt if you like.  This dish is absolutely declicious.  My whole family tried some and enjoyed it.  It is nutritious and easy to collect, prepare and eat.  The closest thing I can tell you it tastes like is asparagus, but truly it has a flavor all its own.

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