Smilax herbacea

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NameSmilax herbacea L.

Family: Smilacaceae (the Catbrier family)

Common Names: Common carrion-flower, Jacob’s-ladder, Smooth carrion-flower (1,3).

0386Etymology: The word “Smilax” was cited (1) as Greek for clasping, while “herbacea” signifies herbaceous, not woody (1). 

Botanical synonyms:
Nemexia herbacea (L.) Small (2)

Quick Notable Features:
¬ Carrion (rotten meat) scented flowers
¬ Unarmed stems
¬ Leaves glabrous and glaucous beneath

Plant Height: S. herbacea is reported to grow to be as high as 2.1m tall (1).

Subspecies/varieties recognized (5,7):
Smilax herbacea var. herbacea
Smilax herbacea var. lasioneuron
Smilax herbacea var. pulverulenta 

Most Likely Confused with: Any of the other local species of Smilax: Smilax ecirrata, Smilax glauca, Smilax hispida, Smilax lasioneura, Smilax pulverulenta, Smilax rotundifolia, Smilax walteri, as well as Dioscorea spp, Menispermum spp.

Habitat Preference: S. herbacea is found in rich or alluvial thickets, meadows and low woods, as well as along fencerows and roadsides. It is found in moist deciduous to coniferous-deciduous woods and thickets (1,4,5,6,7,8).

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: S. herbacea has only been confirmed in two counties of the southern lower peninsula of Michigan (3).

Known Elevational Distribution: 100-800m (11).

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to North America. Found as far north as Ontario and as far south as Georgia. Also found from the eastern coast of N. America as far west as Kansas (3).

Smilax_herbacea,_Carrion-flower_Male,I_SOP1581Vegetative Plant Description: S. herbacea is an herbaceous vine that climbs as high as 2.1m tall, is completely unarmed, and is often freely branched. The branches are either round or many ridged. It has bladeless bracts on the lower portions of the stem that are appressed-ascending. The leaves, which generally number 25 or more, are glaucous and glabrous beneath and they have entire margins. The petioles are 1-4.5 cm long. S. herbacea has a wide range of leaf forms including narrowly oblong-ovate to nearly round, acute or broadly obtuse, tapering, truncate, or cordate. At the apex, the leaf is acuminate to cuspidate or broadly rounded and the apices always have convex lateral margins. Smilax leaves lack an abscission layer, but the petiole goes through a slight disintegration and the leaf falls off, leaving a rough end on the stem (1,4,5,6,7,8,11).

Climbing Mechanism: S. herbacea climbs using tendrils that are borne from the petioles. 

Flower Description: S. herbacea is dioecious The flowers are green to yellowish and 6 parted. The tepals are 3-6 mm long. They bear 3-4 mm long filaments that are longer than the anthers, which are only 1-2 mm long. There are 6 stamens. On the female flowers, the styles are ligulate. The ovary is superior with 1-3 locules. The inflorescence bears 20-100 flowers in a 3.8cm globose umbel arising the leaf axil. The peduncles can be up to twice as long as the subtending leaves and they become strongly divergent when fruiting. The flowers are carrion scented (1,4,5,7).

060506_135805Flowering Time: Flowers of S. herbacea open in May and June (1,5). 

Pollinator: The carrion smell of the flowers attracts flies, which are the main pollinators (12). 

Fruit Type and Description: The fruit of S. herbacea are initially green maturing to dark blue, smooth glaucous berries borne in umbellate clusters. The fruit is 8-10mm in diameter (1,5,7).

Seed Description: There are 3-6 seeds in a S. herbacea berry. They are brown red and about 4 mm long (5,7).

Dispersal Syndrome: Smilax lasioneura, which is very closely related to S. herbacea and is even referred to as a variety of S. herbacea, has bird-dispersed seeds. It is highly probable that S. herbacea seeds are also bird dispersed (14).Julie N. fruit sharp

0387Distinguished by: S. herbacea is best identified by the carrion scent of its flowers and glaucous undersides of its leaves. This sets it apart from S. illinoensis, which does not have a glaucous underside. It can be distinguished from its closest relative, S. lasioneura, by the appressed-ascending bladeless bracts on the lower stem, which differ from S. lasioneura with its spreading-ascending bladeless bracts. Also, S. herbacea leaves are smooth above and below, whereas S. lasioneura is minutely pubescent. S. herbacea is completely unarmed which sets it apart from S. hispida. It can be distinguished from Dioscorea villosa by the presence of petiole tendrils, which are absent in Dioscorea villosaD. villosa also bears at least 7 arching veins, which reunite at the apex of the leaf, but in Smilax the number of veins that converge on the apex is only 3 or 5 at most.  Menispermum is another alternate-leaved vine that does not bear petiole tendrils and it does bear a thickened petiole base (pulvinus), which is not seen in Smilax. 

Other members of the family in Michigan (number species): Often S. herbacea is confused with S. lasioneura.  There are 6 other species of Smilax in Michigan: Smilax ecirrhata, Smilax hispida, Smilax illinoensis, Smilax lasioneura, Smilax pulverulenta, and Smilax rotundifolia. Smilax is the sole genus in the Smilacaceae.

Ethnobotanical Uses: S. herbacea has multiple medicinal and edible uses. The young shoots, berries, and root can all be eaten. Only the root must be cooked. It has been said that S. herbacea can be used to treat hoarseness, as a dressing for burns and boils, and that the root is an analgesic. Further, the root has been used to treat back pains, stomach aches, lung disorders, and kidney problems (10).

SMILSmilaxherbaceaMAPPhylogenetic Information: The Smilacaceae is a family of the order Liliales. Liliales belong in the monocot clade.  They form a monophyletic group with Asparagales, Dioscoreales, Pandanales, Arecales, Poales, Commelinales, Zingiberales, Petrosaviales, Alismatales, and Acorales. Liliales are angiosperms (9). 

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above: Species of Smilax were found in 75% of the plots established for testing whether the local vegetation of Louisiana was suitable for sustaining a population of Chimpanzees as an alternative for the Chimps living in laboratory housing. The Smilax species were considered an abundant edible plant, but some were seen as potentially hazardous because Smilax commonly bears thorns (13).  

Literature and websites used:

  1. Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Last modified: March 19, 2008 ( 10 July 2008)
  2. Kartesz, J. 2000. ITIS Standard Report Page. 1996-2008 ( 10 July 2008)
  3. USDA, NRCS. 2008. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.1, National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA. ( 10 July 2008)
  4. Fernald, M.L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York, USA: American Book Company.
  5. Gleason, H.A. & A. Cronquist 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Bronx, New York, USA: New York Botanical Garden Press.
  6. Voss, E.G. 1972.  Michigan Flora Part I: Gymnosperms and Monocots. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA: Cranbrook Institute of Science.
  7. McGregor R.L. 1986. Flora of the Great Plains. Lawrence, Kansas, USA: The University Press of Kansas.
  8. Braun, E. Lucy. 1967. The Vascular Flora of Ohio. Columbus, Ohio, USA; The Ohio State University Press.
  9. Solomon, J. 2006. W3TROPICOS VAST nomenclatural database. Missouri Botanical Garden. ( 14 July 2008)
  10. Plants For A Future, 1996-2003. Last modified: June 2004. ( 14 July 2008).
  11. Holmes, W.C.  2002. Smilacaceae.  In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds.  1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. New York and Oxford.  Vol. 26
  12. Connecticut Botanical Society. Last modified: November 13, 2005 ( 18 July 2008)
  13. Horvath, J.L., M. Croswell, R.C. O’Malley, & W.C. McGrew 2005. Plant species with potential as food, nesting material, or tools at a Chimpanzee refuge site in Caddo parish, Louisiana. International Journal of Primatology  28: 135-158
  14. Thompson, J.N. & M.F. Wilson 1979. Evolution of temperate fruit/bird interactions: phenological strategies. Evolution. 33: 973-982.

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1) Image of entire plant © Louis-M Landry, used with permission
2) Image of leaves and inflorescences copyright Sheryl Pollock 2001  <>
3) Image of flower umbel © David G. Smith, available online at <>
5) Image of green fruit from Julie Feuling, used with permission.
4) Image of fruit ©Louis-M Landry, used with permission
5) Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online

Primary Authors: Bradley Sisson with editing by John Bradtke and Robyn Burnham

© Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan

For additional information on Michigan Plant Diversity web pages please contact Robyn J. Burnham via email: rburnham“at”