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Earleaf greenbriar (Smilax auriculata) is a monocot closely related to the lilies that grows as a woody vine. It is native to the southeastern United States, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. In the US, it occurs from Louisiana to North Carolina. Smilax auriculata is known by a number of other common names, including wild-bamboo, dune greenbriar and cat briar.
Earleaf greenbriar commonly grows along coastal sand dunes, sandy woodlands and disturbed sites. It tends to prefer deep, sandy soils at altitudes below 330 feet (100 meters). One can also find it in marshes and savannahs with heavier soils and flatwoods with dappled shade. This fast-growing vine climbs by entangling itself around nearby trees and shrubs with the aid of tendrils. It sometimes grows to heights of 30 feet (9 meters) but more often twins around itself to form a dense, low thicket.
An evergreen species, earleaf greenbriar keeps its T-shaped leaves all year. Small spines, about 0.16 inch (4 mm) long, stick out along its “zig-zag” branchlets. Smilax auriculata grows from underground shoots and tubers. Even when aboveground vegetation dies off or is removed, these tubers persist to regenerate the vine.
In more southern habitats Smilax auriculata blooms all year, although further north flowers occur only in the spring. Individual vines have either female flowers or male flowers, but not both. This means that in order to produce fertile seeds, vines of both sexes must be nearby. Earleaf greenbriar flowers are small and pale greenish-yellow. They grow in clusters (called umbels), with each flower stem springing from the same point. The flowers are fragrant, and attract birds, bees and butterfly pollinators. Vines with male flowers do not produce fruit, but fruits on female vines resemble bunches of grapes. Each dark purple berry contains 2-3 red seeds.
Impenetrable to humans, thickets of earleaf greenbriar provide valuable cover and habitat for wildlife. Deer, rabbits and other browser eat the vegetation; some also eat the tubers. A wide assortment of mammals and birds eat its berries and disperse the seeds. Smilax auriculata has also been reported as possessing extrafloral nectaries, which may produce nectar to attract ants.
As addition to providing essential habitat and food sources for wildlife, earleaf greenbrier has a variety of food and medicinal uses for humans. New growth shoots and buds are edible raw or cooked (some report it tastes like asparagus). Native Americans and settlers started a long history of eating the starchy potato-like roots. Roots can also be dried, ground to flour and used for bread, soup thickeners and other purposes. Teas from leaves and stems are used in folk medicine treatments for rheumatism, stomach discomfort and expelling afterbirth. Rubbing the thorns on skin relieves localized pains and muscle cramps. Native Americans and settlers may also have used the woody underground rhizomes for making pipes.
(Alabama Plant Atlas Editorial Committee 2015; Flora of North America; Hilton 2010; Koptur 1992; Proenza and Andreu 2013; Plants for a future 1996-2012; Snyder 2015; Wikipedia 2015)