Common / roundleaf Greenbrier, or Smilax rotundifolia, is a perennial woody vine growing abundantly through the eastern United States and Canada.
The greenbrier plant can grow up to 20ft so long as it has a tall surface to climb up. Just about every part of the vine is edible. Foragers have compared the taste of different parts of greenbrier to asparagus, spinach, and even caramel!
Greenbrier is easily identifiable, and highly versatile in the kitchen. If you’re in the eastern half of North America, you should have no problem finding it in forests, thickets, or along roadside fences.
However, if you find it in your own garden, you’ll want to eradicate it before it completely takes over. But in the wild, the plant is resilient against fires and provides important winter nutrition for wildlife. Here is what any forager or homesteader should know about this terrific plant.
Table of Contents:
How to Identify Greenbrier
Greenbriers are easy to identify in the wild, as they have many unique characteristics. For example, a single greenbrier plant vine will likely have both thorns and tendrils.
The flowers themselves are inconspicuous, so the best way to confirm that a vine is greenbrier is to look at the stems and unique leaves. It’s also worth noting that the flowers don’t last very long. And in late summer and early fall, you’ll see berries growing instead of flowers.
Common greenbrier stems are pale green and hairless. As a crawling vine, it can grow up to 20ft long as long as there is a wall or other vegetation for it to climb.
The greenbrier climbs via tendrils that grow from the petioles. The stems usually have small black thorns that are each roughly ⅓” long. When the vine is dying, the green stem turns dark brown.
Greenbrier is well known for its glossy, round leaves. It is also sometimes called roundleaf greenbrier. These round leaves are usually between 5-13 centimeters (2-5 inches), and 7-15 centimeters (3-6 inches) wide.
Each leaf has between 3-5 primary veins. The leaves are palmate, meaning all the veins radiate from one point.
The leaves are more famous for their shapes. Although they are never pointed, some of these round leaves have irregular shapes. But even these leaves will have distinct veins.
Although the edges of the leaves are smooth, the veins of the leaves are sometimes covered with very small prickles.
The glabrous leaves grow in an alternate pattern along the stem, and only one leaf grows per node. In winter, the leaves will usually fall off the vine. However, some will wither but remain attached to the petiole.
Common greenbrier is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate vines.
The flowers are greenish white and very small. Both male and female flowers are only ¼” across. Both male and female flowers also have 6 tepals that are fused at the base on axils of leaves.
However, male flowers have six stamens that are the same color of the flower, except each stamen has a white anther. Male flowers also produce pollen. Female flowers have a green pistil and three stigmata. The female flowers contain nectar.
Female plants produce small berries, usually black or red fruit. These wild edible berries are particularly beloved by birds.
When greenbrier berries first grow, they are green. They can blend in quite well with the rest of the plant.
But as the summer turns to autumn and the berries ripen, they become almost black. These berries are usually only ⅓” long. Each of these edible berries contains between 1-3 large seeds. The berries become fully ripe in September, and persist through winter.
Where to Find Greenbrier
Greenbrier is not a particularly picky vine, at least in one half of the country. The vine grows abundantly through eastern United States and Canada.
As a crawling vine, you’ll find it among trees, thickets, or roadside fences. The plant thrives in undisturbed spaces and left unmanaged will form impenetrable walls of vegetation. If this crawler has nothing to climb, it will start spreading on the ground.
Common greenbrier grows in hardiness zones 4a-9a. This means it can survive winter low temperatures between -30℉ (-34.4℃) and 25℉ (-3.9℃).
The plant grows natively in the eastern half of the United States. No records indicate that it grows west of South Dakota.
It can be found as far north as Illinois and as far south as Florida. Midwesterners say that the crawler is more common in the southern halves of the states than the northern halves. But if you go further north from Chicago, you’ll find greenbrier plants growing in southern Ontario.
Soil and Sunlight
Common greenbrier can grow in a wide range of soil conditions. The plant can take root and quickly spread in dry, moist, and sandy soils. Its ideal soil pH is neutral, between 6.0 – 8.0.
The plant often forms thick, impenetrable walls of vegetation in forests, where there are clusters of trees for it to climb.
The plant can grow in direct sunlight, partial shade, or dappled sunlight. You’ll see it growing along abandoned roadside fences that sit in the sun all day. But it will also thrive in forests, where treetops dapple the sunlight.
Spreading and control
Greenbrier is native to North America, and thus can’t be classified as an invasive species. However, it could be invasive in your garden! This rapidly growing vine is known to sometimes infiltrate yards and spread not only along walls, but even in and around your plants/produce.
These shrubs have been compared to Japanese knotweed for their rapid onset of new growth and for their ability to completely take over a landscape.
Because smilax looks like ivy, many homeowners don’t try to eradicate it right away. They find the appearance charming. But the best time to stop its spread is when you first notice it. And homeowners who let it grow often regret their decision.
The best method for eradicating greenbrier is the cut and spray method. This method involves cutting the vines and spraying the plants with a glyphosate herbicide.
However, the glyphosate concentration and specific instructions depend on how tangled the vine is in your yard.
Of course, you may not want to spray a solution of glyphosate into your garden beds if you have other plants growing there, so you’ll want to try other methods instead if that’s the case.
The easiest way is just to dig out the end of the vine from the ground (and transplant it elsewhere, if you plan to keep it), but if it’s a larger vine, you’ll need the chemicals.
Vines that are not tangled in other plants or are easy to untangle without damaging your plants are the easiest to deal with.
First, carefully untangle the vines from the plants. Work slowly, so as not to damage your plants, or rip the stems of the vines. Pieces of stem will take root in the ground and begin spreading rapidly via rhizomes.
Lay the vines along a tarp and spray them with a 10% glyphosate solution. Be sure to do this away from your other plants, so you do not kill them in the process.
Two days after spraying the vines, cut them down to ground level. Your best way to get rid of the vines without risking dropped stems is to burn them. And if they resprout, follow the same process when they are about 6” tall.
If the vines are totally untangled, you’ll have to cut them at ground level. You’ll also need a much stronger herbicide.
Paint the stubs of the vines with a herbicide that is at least 41% active glyphosate. If the plant does resprout, you can use a weaker solution. But this is a much riskier situation, as you don’t want the much stronger glyphosate to destroy your plants.
Fire and Regrowth
Since roundleaf greenbrier grows via an underground system of rhizomes, it grows back vigorously after wildfires. Although the above ground portion of the plant will get seared, the unharmed rhizomes simply continue spreading, and new shoots appear quite quickly. If anything, fires encourage greenbrier growth because it clears large areas of dense forests.
Nutritional benefits for wildlife after fire
In the late 1940s, scientists conducted an experiment on the nutritional value of plants after fires. Two years after a high intensity fire in a dry area, the regrown roundleaf greenbrier showed a 19% increase in protein.
Thus, wildlife feeding on the new greenbrier would get much more protein without eating more calories.
Common greenbrier is edible, and popular for its green taste. Many foragers compare the taste of greenbrier to that of asparagus and green beans.
The cooked leaves are a popular substitute for spinach in salads. However, it can be eaten raw, and some foragers prefer that. Foragers who enjoy hiking will sometimes pick it on the trail as a snack to nibble on during their expedition.
Are Greenbrier Seeds Edible?
Greenbrier seeds are edible. However, that doesn’t mean you should go munching on them right away. The seeds are surrounded by a fleshy pulp that can be bitter or even toxic to some people.
To make the seeds edible, you need to remove the pulp by washing the berries and then mashing them with a strainer. The seeds will separate easily from the pulp and can be boiled or roasted.
Once you’ve got the seeds, you can use them in a variety of ways. They can be ground into a flour and used in baking, or added to soups and stews as a thickener (more on this below). Some people even eat them raw as a snack, though it’s recommended that you roast them first to remove any potential bitterness.
You can forage the best greenbrier shoots in the summer. Between May and August, you can easily snap tender new shoots off vines with your fingers.
Older shoots have a woody taste. The shoots are fresh and crisp. They can be eaten raw or cooked. You can add them to salads or serve them as a side dish.
Prepare the shoots the same way you would prepare asparagus. One simple way to cook shoots is to drizzle them with olive oil, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and cook them in a pan over medium heat.
Some foragers opt to chill the shoots and add them to egg salad. Shoots are rich in Vitamins A and C.
Greenbrier berries aren’t just for birds! Many foragers pick ripe berries for themselves in autumn and early winter. Because of the seeds, there’s not much berry in the berries, but different foragers describe them as having a pleasant, mild taste. You will, however, want to spit out the seeds.
Young Leaves and Tendrils
Common greenbrier leaves and tendrils can be eaten both raw and cooked. The leaves taste similar to spinach and are highly nutritious.
The best time to forage leaves and tendrils is in early spring. By summer, the leaves get rougher, but they are tender in March and April. You can substitute wild greenbrier leaves for spinach in any of your favorite salad recipes.
One tasty idea is to use greenbrier leaves as lettuce in a seasonal spring salad. Make a refreshing strawberry salad for spring and replace the lettuce with raw greenbrier.
In a large bowl, toss six cups of greenbrier leaves with strawberries, grapes, walnuts, cranberries, and feta cheese.
If walnuts don’t give you enough crunch, chop some fresh, raw greenbrier tendrils and toss them in the salad as well. The salad is best when you drizzle it with a lemon vinaigrette. The salad is sweet and zesty, perfect for welcoming spring.
Greenbrier puts the root in root beer
Greenbrier roots are incredibly versatile in the kitchen. The white, chord-like roots turn red when pulled up and exposed to oxygen in the air. The best times to forage roots are early spring or autumn.
To make jelly, chop or grind the roots and put them in a pot. Cover the roots with water and let the mixture boil for one hour. The water should become very dark.
Strain the mixture over a pot to collect the water, and then add honey. The water to honey ratio should be 2:1, so if you have two cups of water, add only one cup of honey.
Boil this mixture for about fifteen minutes. Pour the mixture into mason jars to cool and let cool. You can spread the jelly on toast or use it in desserts. You can even dilute the jelly in water to make greenbrier root beer.
Greenbrier roots for a thickening agent
The greenbrier’s roots are rich in starch, which means they can be used to form thickening agents. The easiest way to do this is to crush the roots and mix the red powder with wheat flour. However, there’s a longer method if you want to go old school.
Cut the roots into ¼” pieces and leave them out in the sun to dry for a few days. Crumble up the discs into a jug of water. The starch will sink, and the fibers will float to the top. Dump the water and fibers, and let the starch dry completely. Once it’s dry, ground it up. The powder has a slightly bitter taste compared to flour but works just as well.
How to Make Greenbrier Tea
Native Americans brewed greenbrier tea with the plant’s leaves and stems…
The tea is simple to make. All you have to do is boil the leaves and stems in hot water. Strain the mixture and let sit before drinking. They also brewed tea with roots.
To make root tea, you can shave the roots into small pieces. Roast the small pieces, and peel off the blackened skin. Boil the roots in hot water. Strain the mixture and let it sit.
Greenbrier in the Ecosystem
Common greenbrier is a nuisance in gardens, but an important source of nourishment in the wild.
Greenbrier berries ripen in autumn and are an important source of winter nutrition for many species. And the leaves are not just enjoyed by humans. Small herbivores feed on the vines to survive the cold winter months.
Birds and Small Mammals
Although greenbrier berries ripen in September, they last much longer. The berries persist through winter.
During the winter, when food is scarce in the wild, birds rely on the berries for food. Northern cardinals and white throated sparrows are two species that feed on the plant between winter and early spring. Greenbriers are also known to attract songbirds.
Rabbits and white-tailed deer feed on the leaves during these months, even though the leaves are usually dried and withered. Small birds and other mammals also use the leaves for cover when hiding from predators!
Birds and Seed Planting
Birds help spread greenbrier via seeds. The plant spreads primarily through rhizomes but traveling birds unknowingly plant seeds throughout their environment.
Birds do not digest seeds. When nature calls, bird droppings contain berry seeds. These seeds left on the soil easily germinate, and more greenbrier sprouts.
Insects and Pollinators
Since male greenbrier flowers produce pollen, and female flowers produce nectar, greenbrier is very beneficial to insects. Several bee species, such as Halictid, Andrenid, and Cuckoo bees are regular visitors.
Flies also visit the plant for nectar. Other insects, such as thrips and leaf beetles, feed on the woody vines. As do several species of moth larvae.
Although you want to eradicate any greenbrier taking over your garden, remember that in the wild the plant provides a lot for the ecosystem. Forage all you want, but don’t try to cut it all down!
Smilax: Don’t let the name fool you!
Common greenbrier’s genus name, Smilax, is derived from the Ancient Greek term for poison. However, as you’ve just read, greenbriers are not only edible, but very tasty and very versatile. The name also comes from Greek mythology!
In one story, a mortal man is transformed into a flower as a punishment for his love affair with a woodland nymph. The grieving nymph, blaming herself, weeps uncontrollably. Zeus, annoyed, transforms her into a woodland vine. That nymph’s name? Smilax.
In any case, if you want to widen the variety of plants you forage in the fields and forests around your homestead, you should definitely consider looking for some greenbrier the first time you have the opportunity to do so.
When Tom Harkins is not busy doing emergency repairs to his 200 year-old New England home, he tries to send all of his time gardening, home brewing, foraging, and taking care of his ever-growing flock of chickens, turkey and geese.
1 thought on “How To Forage and Use The Greenbrier Plant”
Thank you for this information. My wife & I recently moved to a property that was inundated with greenbrier. I am happy to see there are benefits to it & plan to allow it areas to grow, outside of the garden though.