Smilex looks like the “walking stick” insect

For The Edible Love of Krokus and Smilax

No, that is not a “Walking stick” insect. It is the growing end of a Smilax, a choice wild food.

The Walking Stick insect

There used to be a field in Sanford, Florida, near Lake Monroe, that was nearly overrun with growing Smilax every spring. I could get a couple of quarts of tender tips daily over a few weeks, enough for many meals. Cooked like asparagus or green beans, they are excellent, and also edible raw in small quantities.

The tip grows from the end of the vine and gets tougher as one goes back along the vine. Technically that is called

Bull Briar leaves, edible when young

the meristem stage, that is, the growing part is almost always the most tender because the cells haven’t decided what it is they’re supposed to do, such as get tough and hold up the plant or create an ordor or the like. The way to harvest smilax is to go back a foot or so from the end of the vine (more if it is a very large vine, less if small) and see if the vine snaps, breaks clean between your fingers. If not, move closer towards the growing end of the vine and try it again. Where the vine snaps and breaks is the part you can take and eat. Well-watered bull briers (Smilax bona-nox, SMEYE-laks BON-uh-knocks, that’s SM plus EYE) in a field or on a sunny tree can produce edible shoots a foot long and third of an inch through. Smilax is from the Greek smilakos, meaning twining but there is more to that story.  Bona-nox means “good night” and usually refers to plants that bloom at night.) The Spanish called them Zarza parilla, (brier small grape vine) which in English became sarsaparilla, and indeed sarsaparilla used to come from a Smilax.

Large roots are fiberous

Often called cat briar because of its thorns, or prickles, Smilax climbs by means of tendrils coming out of the leaf axils. Again, technically, it is not a vine but a “climbing shrub.” No, I have no idea why someone thinks that’s important or how they can tell the difference. My guess is a vine has one stem and a shrub has several.) I am filing it under “vine.” Smilax are usually found in a clump on the ground or in a tree. They provide protection and food for over forty different species of birds

Young roots can be boiled or roasted

and are an important part of the diet for deer, and black bears. Rabbits eat the evergreen leaves and vines, leaving a telltale (tell tail?) 45 degree cut. Beavers eat the roots. Smilax also has a long history with man, most famous perhaps for providing sarsaparilla. The roots (actually rhizomes) of several native species can also be processed (requiring more energy than obtained) to produce a dry red powder that can be used as a thickener or to make a juice. Young roots — finger size or smaller — can also be cooked and eaten. While the tips and shoots can be eaten raw a lot of raw ones give me a stomach ache.

Fruits are edible when old

Medically, the root powder has been used to treat gout. A Jamaican species contains at least four progesterone class phytosterols. Some herbalists recommend that species for premenstrual issues. In 2001, a U.S. patent application said Smilax steroids had the ability to treat senile dementia, cognitive dysfunction and Alzheimer’s. A U.S. patent awarded in 2003 described Smilax flavonoids as effective in treating autoimmune diseases and inflammatory reactions. Note: These are patents claims in anticipation of clinical trials some distant day proving said claims by further research. So don’t start digging up Smilax roots for self-medication.  A 29 Feb 2008 study suggest Smilax root has antiviral action and a 2006 study suggest it is good for liver cancer.

It should be mentioned that early American settlers made a real root beer from the smilax. They would mix root pulp with molasses and parched corn then allowed it to ferment. One variation is to add sassafras root chips, which gives it more of the soft drink root beer flavor. Francis Peyre Porcher wrote during the Civil War in the 1860’s  “The 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 it is seasoned with sassafras.”

Francis Peyer Porcher, professor of medicine

Can I take an aside here? Francis Peyer Porcher, 1824-1895, was a doctor, professor of medicine, and a botanist. Through his mother’s side, he was a descendant of the botanist Thomas Walter, author of Flora Caroliniana, the first catalog of the flowering plants of South Carolina, published in 1788. Peyer, as he liked to be called, was, as they used to say, well-to-do. He was professionally active in both fields — medicine and botany — when the American Civil War began. Because of the blockade of medical supplies he was ordered to write a field manual for doctors to help them find and make the drugs they needed in the

Dr. Porcher circa U.S. Civil War

absence of supplies. His work, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, is still a reference and I have an ebook copy of it. It was so popular in his day that newspapers carried excepts of it. His effort was credited with helping the South prolong the war. We are fortunate to have two photographs of him, one presumably around war time and the other when he was again a professor and active in medical circles.

There are about 300 or more species in the genus Smilax and are found in the Eastern half of the United States and Canada, basically east of the Rockies.  Fourteen species are found in the southern United States. Smilax gets its name from the Greek myth of Krokus and the nymph Smilax. The story is varied. Here’s one version: Their love affair was tragic and unfulfilled because mortals and nymph weren’t allowed to love each other. For that indiscretion, the man, Krokus, was turned into the saffron crocus by the goddess Artemis (because she, too, was having an affair with Krokus but as a goddess that was okay.) Smilax, actually woodland nymph, was so heartbroken over Krokus’ reduction down to a flower that Artemis took godly pity on her and turned Smilax into a brambly vine so she and Krokus could forever entwine themselves. There are far less poetic and less sanitized versions. Seems it was a popular story thousands of years ago with many variation and interpretations.

Oh, about that field in Sanford: A century ago it was a truck farm producing celery and other vegetables. Then it fell fallow growing Smilax. Now it’s an apartment complex. One last thing: Dried Smilax root can make a good pipe bowl, which is why the pipe bowl is called a “brier,”

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Smilax tips ready for butter and seasoning

IDENTIFICATION: A climbing shrub with tuberous roots, knobby white roots tinged with pink, bamboo like stems, more or less thorny, leaves varying with species and on the bush, tiny flowers, five slim petals, fruit round, green turning to black, one small brown seed.  Some species have red fruit, edibility of red fruit unreported.

TIME OF YEAR: Starts putting on shoots in February in Florida, later in the season as one moves north. Seeds germinate best after a freeze.

ENVIRONMENT:  It grows best in moist woodlands, but can tolerate a lot of dry and is often seen climbing trees. Left on its own with nothing to climb it sometimes creates and brambly shrub. Thicket provides protection for birds.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Beside making sarsaparilla, the roots can be used in soups or stews, young shoots eaten cooked or in small quantities raw,  berries can be eaten both raw and cooked, usually are chewed like gum (avoid the large seed.) Pounds of roots to pounds of flour is a 10 to one ratio.

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{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jon October 26, 2011 at 00:35

I have a large amount of smilax growing in the woods near my home. I have on occasion eaten the young shoots after a good spring rain. I would, however, like to try utilizing the roots. Can you suggest some specific ways to prepare the roots? Should they be fresh or dried out before use? Are the fibrous rhizomes digestible in pulp form or would you need to steep them in boiling water like a tea? Have you come across any tasty recipes using the roots?

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2 Green Deane October 26, 2011 at 04:41

If you want to eat smilax root you have to get them young and tender, finger size or less or they will be too fibrous. When very young they can, as I mention in my article on site, boiled and consumed. Older they are 1/10th starch which has to be pounded, ground and setled out, not calorie efficient at all. It’s a huge amount of work for a little pink starch.

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3 art smith November 3, 2011 at 19:13

green deen,

what do the roots smell like – i am trying to identify this plant – i have a place at the dog park on lakemont ,orlando – it is growing near the canal to the left of the park close to the bank- it has all the characteristics of smilax – it has long shoots at this time and breaks with a finger snap about 6inches in- the longer shoots are red at the bottom and the roots smell astringent and kind of sweet – at the park they have a nature trail you should check out!! if you are there tell me if that is smilax – on the trail they have beauty berry, grapes, etc- the trail is located on the other side of the dog park by the street light!

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4 Green Deane November 3, 2011 at 19:36

Thanks for writing… a big warning flag went up as soon as you said the shoots are red at the bottom. I do not recall ever seeing a smilax shoot that is red. Smilax is a vine and usually growing on something. What might be coming up this time of year as a free standing plant is Pokeweed. If it is pokeweed those red shoot can make you very sick and the roots are deadly. Do NOT eat them. Send me a picture if you can.

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5 art smith November 3, 2011 at 20:41

i have the tips of these plants look exactly like your picture – what i meant to say at the base of the vines where they attached to the big root within 1inch from the root looks pink, see i pulled the vine away from the root and it was pinkish ??

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6 Green Deane November 3, 2011 at 21:07

Ah… pink. Pink is different than red. The root of the smilax is large and knobby. It can have a pinkish tinge.

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7 art smith November 3, 2011 at 21:13

one question that wasnt answered in our discussion – what does the root smell like??????

8 art smith November 3, 2011 at 19:23

ps after the park – there is a walking trail around the lake- i found gooseberrys, and what i believe to be horsemint – but i am not sure about that either

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9 Green Deane November 3, 2011 at 19:41

Another warning flag. Gooseberries do not grow in Florida, or at least not here. It has to be something else. As for horsemint… that’s a common term for a wide variety of plants. Monarda punctata is at the end of its season now and is very identifiable. It has small white snap dragon like flowers with purple spots (that’s what punctata means.) It also has large pink bracts, which are extra leaves around the flower head. Again, got a picture? Type Monarda punctata into my search window. I have an article about them on site.

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10 art smith November 3, 2011 at 20:48

it looked like a cape gooseberry – with the paper covering and all was orange – it was within 20 feet of the easter egg plant – i am sure you know the eggplant they sell at walmart for easter – Solanum melongena – this was once the naval base area – i think some one had a special garden by the lake at one time along this trail – it was there until they sprayed some major weed killer there

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11 Green Deane November 3, 2011 at 21:11

I think Physalis are called Cape Gooseberries only in Southern Africa, and then only the cultivated ones. “Gooseberry” to me is a relative of the currant (and kiwi) that grows in northern climates. In North America most Physalis are called Ground Cherries. This is why the botanical name is important.

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12 Robert M. November 11, 2011 at 15:01

The raw young tips taste like raw field peas to me. Probably better cooked. Did not know the “ripe” berries were edible. Thanks. May try the young roots sometime also. I have seen all three kinds here. Common, Laurel, and Bull.

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13 Erik November 12, 2011 at 17:45

I’ve got a bunch of what i think is greenbriar in a woods near my house but the berries have two or three seeds in them and they don’t have that funny lookin tip either, so is there some kind of look alike here or is it safe to eat the berries?

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14 Green Deane November 12, 2011 at 17:55

I couldn’t say without a picture. There are many different looking species in the genus. They can also have one to three seeds.

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15 Chris @ Jax January 17, 2012 at 19:35

Deane,
If we want to make a batch (2l?) of “Zarza parilla,” how owuld you suggest processing the root? Grated, sliced, minced, pulped?

I believe I will be attempting the requivelant of the Civil War recipe unless you happen to have a good one locked away in that head of your’s and you’d like to share. *hint, hint, nudge, nudge*

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16 Green Deane January 17, 2012 at 19:43

A wood chipper woud be just about right. The root is really tough. I might me temped to cut the root into small slices on a circular saw then pound the heck out of it make a pulp.

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17 Mozartghost January 31, 2012 at 16:20

I have dug up roots of at least two species of smilax and they are both thin and wiry, and basically wood. I have heard stories of people making flour with them but I don’t see how this is possible…I whittled the root with a knife and it was wood. It is pretty hard to mistake Smilax for anything due to its distinctive spines and leaves. What do I do to get the flour?

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18 Green Deane January 31, 2012 at 21:45

I know what you mean. One has to pound a root into destroyed submission then soak it in water to get its 10% pink starch. Not a calories positive experience. Very young roots — finger size — can been cooked and consumed, however.

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19 Mozartghost February 1, 2012 at 14:57

Ah… I had no Idea it would be so much work. I might try it with a hammer some time, just to say I’ve tried it, but as a survival skill it doesn’t sound very useful. The book “Survival Skills of the North American Indians” makes it sound easy with, “The various greenbriers were the most important food plants of the Southeast”, and “The root can be chopped for bread or stew.”
I did find a new use for the Smilax berries, however. If you crush them so the seeds come out and put them in one of those metal mesh tea things, they can be steeped in boiling water to make a decent purpleish-red tea. This I drank with some honey, as the berries aren’t really sweet at all.

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20 Green Deane February 1, 2012 at 14:59

The books definitely understate the difficulty of getting the starch out. As for the berries, when they begin to shrivel up and look raisinous they’re not bad.

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21 Hikingonthru March 9, 2013 at 14:28

The Creek, Yamassee, Cherokee and other SE tribes were known to use smilax as a food source – using the red powder to make a sort of flavored drink and gelatinous meal for the very old and very young. I think the Creek called it “coontie” – it was very labor intensive.
Of course, goose grass seed is edible and to gather a turtle shell full of it is a day of work…but it was done. Considering the other option of starvation, might be worth it!

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22 Green Deane March 10, 2013 at 18:40

Coontie usually refers to another plant (Zamia) that has a root laced with cyanide.

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23 Sly Bill February 9, 2012 at 16:53

Seems like all the plants I dig up are attached to rhizomes, but not the potatoish rootstocks. I found ONE rootstock after digging up about seven vines/stems. Is there an easy way to tell which smilax plants have a rootstock under them instead of just a rhizome?

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24 Green Deane February 9, 2012 at 18:17

Perhaps it is a problem of definition. Smilax have rhizomes, not tubers. You won’t find a potato-like root. (Rhizomes grow horixontall, roots usually are verticle.) What you want for eating as is is very young rhizomes about the size of your fingers. After that they get woody and the starch has to be pounded out.

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25 Sly Bill February 10, 2012 at 10:31

Then what are the pictures of “roots” Up on the page there?
They look a lot more tuberous than what I’ve been finding.
Mine look more like vines growing underground.

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26 Green Deane February 10, 2012 at 12:24

Those are rhizomes, and lumpy ones at that. We informally call them roots
but they are actually rhizomes.

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27 Sly Bill February 10, 2012 at 16:15

Oh, OK. Is there a way to find the fat ones instead of the thin ones, or do you just not want the fat ones anyway?

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28 Green Deane February 10, 2012 at 19:50

With apologies, I don’t understand the issue. Large smilax roots are 10% starch and they must be ground up and or pounded for hours and then soaked to get the starch out. It is calorie negative. Fat (large) rhizomes just aren’t that good for much. The very small roots can be boiled or roasted and eaten as is. Large smilax roots are so tough you can literally pound nails with them.

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29 Sly Bill February 11, 2012 at 10:34

Oh. So you’re looking for the small ones. I’ll remember that.

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30 M.B. February 11, 2012 at 22:42

I would like to thank you for this website, you are doing a great service for all of humanity. I’m trying to verify that Smilax laurifolia (LAUREL GREENBRIER; BAMBOO VINE) is edible and if so, is it used the same way as Smilax bona-nox?

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31 Green Deane February 12, 2012 at 06:35

Young roots are of the S. laurifolia are edible as are young growing tips and leaves. Used like S. bona-nox.

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32 Trab February 16, 2012 at 23:48

What about the australian version Smilax Australis? We have that growing here, in Australia, quite commonly. Are the roots, berries etc also useable in this way?

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33 Green Deane February 20, 2012 at 07:15

I do not have any reference to Smilas australis. Thus I have to say I do not know.

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34 GreenCook March 4, 2012 at 17:18

Newly introduced to these, I found several of the thick and thin tips growing near me. I love them raw and would love to know how to cook them? I was thinking a bit of a stir fry. Would like to hear how you cook the tips.
Thanks

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35 Green Deane March 4, 2012 at 18:12

I like to steam them and serve with a little olive oil and soy sauce, or real butter and soy sauce.

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36 FlGardener March 4, 2012 at 22:09

Great Smilax discussion. I love the tips.. I haven’t so far been able to get them to the pan, but they have not hurt my stomach; I have been eating them as I pick them. When I find a giant one I share it. Before I knew they were food I was trying to dig them out of my woods, (fortunately I failed to make a dent in their population,) the roots were tremendous, and potato looking, but sure enough wood like. I have seen the berries quite a bit.. they are often out at the same time as the wild grapes. It is good to know I can eat them, and to wait until they are shriveled.

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37 JohnTeitsch March 30, 2012 at 08:58

I love this site, last night we had pasta w/Smilax tips. I just substituted the Smilax for Broccolini. I blanched it in salted boiling water and then sauteed it with Garlic, Chive Flowers, Tomatoes and Olive Oil. My 5 yr old son helped harvest them and he loved eating food he “found”

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38 Green Deane March 30, 2012 at 17:08

Great. Preparing him for the future.

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39 Dan Dowling April 1, 2012 at 20:08

I’ve made several batches and my experience is this. Use a moist cooking method: steaming or boiling. I often oven roast vegetables with olive oil, but smilax is not a good candidate. It tends to make the vegetable bitter. Just my two cents. Bon Appetite!

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40 Green Deane April 1, 2012 at 20:33

Good to know. If you boil smilax and then let the water sit for a frew hours it turns black. I suspect that is also what would make the vegetables bitter.

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41 Zuly Mitchell May 24, 2012 at 11:32

Wuao. This is the most complete article I’ve found about this “weed”. I told my husband we were throwing money to the trash by trying to get rid of this Smilax that is in our yard. Task no easy at all by the way! :-)
Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

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42 Jaclyn July 3, 2012 at 10:35

I identified a briar ish looking plant my my mailbox as a CARRION FLOWER vine. I tried the stickmonster looking tip here in southeast texas mid summer and it was hot hot like a pepper!! I have tasted green briar tips and was expecting an asparagus flavor but boy was I suprised. Is this because they are out of season now that it was spicy hot? I know that wild onions grow near by but it is not the season for them. Do you think it could be why these are spicy? “)

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43 Green Deane July 11, 2012 at 20:42

I’ve never heard of them being spicy.. bitter but not spicy.

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44 Mozartghost August 25, 2012 at 14:36

The ones I tried were somewhat sour… Like weak oxalis.

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45 Jeannie August 25, 2012 at 22:11

I read somewhere that this is the only plant with both thorns and tendrils at the same time, so it should be easy to identify. Is that true?

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46 Green Deane August 29, 2012 at 12:26

Don’t know. I will have to think about that.

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47 Jean Parker August 29, 2012 at 14:02

Do I need to amend the Piedmont clay in order to grow smilax smallii?
Are the shoots, berries, and/or small rhizomes edible of this variety and was it used for sarsaparilla?
Does this variety need winter protection in North Carolina?

Comments seem to focus on riddance rather than nurturance! I think this particular variety can be quite lovely and I remember climbing on top of the chicken shed in Alabama to cut it from trees in order to use it for decoration. Other varieties could be nasty critters when they strafed bare legs.

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48 Green Deane August 30, 2012 at 07:22

To my knowledge smilax is not fussy about soil though it usually does not grow in damp places. It should grow in North Carolina. I saw a lot of smilax when I was there last week.

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49 name September 12, 2012 at 03:46

I have never seen rhizomes thicker than a pensil. here they grow mostly around the sweet gums and tulip poplars. not so much up with the pines or actualy in the swamps with the alders and sycamores. they do very well by barly shaded creeks.

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50 Mike December 30, 2012 at 07:14

Hello all,

I have some questions about Smilax – when can I harvest them after planting? One year, two years or maybe longer when I want to use them in medicinal purposes? Do you know when concentration of Smilax officinalis saponis is highest?

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51 Green Deane December 30, 2012 at 15:12

The older the plant the greater the concentration.

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52 East Texan January 28, 2013 at 21:17

Just found your website. Have been looking for a site listing edible wild plants for the South and specifically East Texas. Here in East Texas we call Smilax Saw Briar or Green Briar. Come fall the vines (climbing bush) is loaded with purple berries that are alright to eat (mostly skin and seed) I have eaten gallons of them with no problem. Have even eaten the tips but did not know that the root was edible. Will have to give it a try.

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53 byron February 19, 2013 at 13:51

i appreciate your knowledge and experience. i have attended one of your workshops. you can eat a large root, if you are a woodchuck. you can make a pipe out of the root also but it is a very poor substitute for “brair root”. the brair root pipe is made from a hard dense wood, it is not fiborous like smilax nor is it smilax.

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54 Ron May 1, 2013 at 10:25

I like to sauteé wild garlic in a little olive oil and margarine, then add bull brier tips. Delicious!

But it sure is refreshing and hydrating to munch on greenbrier tips while hiking.

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55 slade June 17, 2013 at 15:14

hello i see that you said you can eat the berries from the greenbrier plant i was doing research and cant find any good information i was reading one website that said the berries are not edible have you ever eating one?
i have lots of the gowing around me i would like to try them

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56 Green Deane June 17, 2013 at 18:11

Edible and palatable are two different aspects. Smilax berries take a long time to ripen and even then they are not great tasting. When they are shriveled like raisins then they aren’t too bad. I have eaten many Smilax berries.

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57 Joyce E Forager June 18, 2013 at 10:33

In Jamaica, sarsaparilla and another smilax species, called “chainey root”, are used to make “roots drink”, a popular dark colored,fermented, nonalchoholic beverage blended with sugar and other herbs. It’s enjoyed by the Rastafarian community and older Jamaicans, who credit it with providing health, energy and aphrodisiac properties. You can sometimes find these two smilax species sold as dried roots at West Indian grocery stores.

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58 Green Deane June 18, 2013 at 12:26

You might be interested in this article I wrote:

http://www.eattheweeds.com/colubrina-elliptica-mauby-has-moxie-2/

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59 Frank June 19, 2013 at 21:00

I grow the endangered Native Long Leaf Pine Trees and they has been invaded by Smilax Australis making it difficult to harvest Long Leaf Pine needles. Is there any herbicide that can eliminate it with out harm to the Long Leaf Pine ?????

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60 Cindy October 31, 2013 at 08:09

Frank, I have had great success using the brand Eraser. I have Loblolly pines. No harm to them following the directions. Do not spray to run off stage. Just a mist of this 41% glyphosate on dry foliage is enough. For greenbrier, sweetgum trees that are sprouting after running the brush cutter, poison ivy and other hard to kill plants I use 4 ounces to 2 gallons of water. Quite a heavy dose. If the vines have grown into the canopy you’ll have to cut the stem bases. I’ve actually chain bound 5 or 6 stems and pulled them out of the trees with my truck. Allow the new shoots to begin growing then spray. They should turn brown within 7 to 10 days. Good Luck

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61 clover August 18, 2013 at 16:35

Thanks for your site. I am amazed at all of the uses for what I have been hating and trying to erradicate for years. I’m interested in the medicinal side. I decided there had to be something worthwhile in a plant that is so determined to live no matter what I did to it. Can you tell me if it’s possible to get pharmacological benefits from boiling, steeping, etc of the plant parts? Of special interest is the anti-inflammatory capabilities. Keep up the good work. You are providing a valuable service to so many.

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62 Green Deane August 18, 2013 at 17:26

It is usually the starch that is used medicinally.

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63 Carl in Texas January 18, 2014 at 17:45

In a history of the Natchez Trace, biscuits were made using flour from something called Chinabriar. Said to be very tasty. Ever heard of this common-name applied to any of these?

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64 Green Deane January 18, 2014 at 19:44

Smila are some times called Chinabriar.

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65 Green Deane November 3, 2011 at 21:46

Potato-ish if anything.

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