Generally I try to be respectful of all plants, trying to find the best in all of them and seeing each as worthy of admiration and appreciation for their unique strategies of surviving and thriving in their environments. But in the last couple of weeks I have found this policy of admiring all of the plant kingdom to be a little more difficult. As I have been working to clear a plot of land formerly dominated by greenbrier (Smilax spp.) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) into a field to grow lavender, I have found myself hurling curse after curse at that greenbrier. At first, when the forest was still a forest and we were clearing brush, cutting trees, and moving logs, I found myself constantly frustrated by getting snagged on hanging vines or tripping over those that had fallen; once the surface of the plot was cleared, I found a brand new set of complaints against the greenbrier. As we began pulling up the remaining roots to ensure the best soil possible and reduce the risk of unwanted guests making their way back to the surface, I found myself spending hours tugging, hacking, digging, and cursing at the rhizomes of the greenbrier, which form tangled mats equally–if not more–difficult to deal with than the plant’s above ground growth.
While this work maligned the plant in my eyes and my cut hands are a constant reminder of the consternation it has caused me, today I stumbled across something online that reminded me that even the greenbrier can be redeemed, and could and should be appreciated and even enjoyed. I hate to again post a link to an NPR story and to again mention recipes for wild plants, but I couldn’t resist this one, a recipe for Grilled Chainey Briar. The description of the recipe points out an interesting fact that I have known for a while, but that many I suspect do not. While much of the greenbriar plant is tough, woody, and thorny, its new growth each year emerges in the form of young, tender shoots and tendrils that are not only edible, but delicious. I have often found myself walking around the forests here and elsewhere in late spring and early summer, snacking on any of these shoots I come across. While much of the plant is edible, including the tubers and berries, the subtlety and delicateness of the young shoots make them the most desirable Smilax snack. But it is not just the passing hiker who make nice snacks of these shoots. Studies have shown greenbrier to be a favorite forage species of the white-tailed deer, and so as you hunt for shoots you may find yourself in competition with our four-legged friends (or foes if you’ve ever had to keep them out of your yard or garden).
And so I stand put in my place and humbled by the greenbrier. Next time I hurl curses at a root mass, I’ll stop and think about what I am doing. A handful of fresh Smilax shoots is well worth a little extra shovel work.