Smilax hispida (tamnoides)

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Name: Smilax hispida Muhl.Smil hisp w frt GOOD

Family: Smilacaceae (the Catbrier family)

Common Names:  Bristly Greenbrier (1), China root, Hellfetter (2) Sarsaparilla (6) 

Etymology: According to (12), Smilax is Greek for clasping; hispida meaning hairy, bristly, rough (15).

Most Likely Confused with: Smilax rotundifolia, Smilax glauca, or Smilax lasioneura, as well as Dioscorea villosa and Menispermum candensis.

Botanical synonyms:  Smilax tamnoides var. hispida (Muhl. ex Torr.) Fern. (13).  The species is widely called Smilax tamnoides, but we have followed recent efforts to synonomize the two species.

Quick Notable Features:
¬ Dark brown or blackish cylindrical prickles on lower stems
¬ 3-5 principle leaf veins arching toward the apex
¬ Tendrils arise from the petioles, not the stemSmilax tamnoides cf June 21c

Plant Height: S. hispida can grow as long as 10 -14 m (4,7).

Subspecies/varieties recognized (13):
Smilax hispida var. australis Small
Smilax hispida var. montana Coke

Habitat Preference: S. hispida often occurs in low woods and thickets. It is also found in moist habitats or lightly shaded woods and along roadsides, fence rows, old fields, edges of woods, and banks of rivers and streams (2,3,4). 

Geographic Distribution in Michigan: S. hispida occurs in most of the counties in southern Michigan. Only four of the Upper Peninsula counties have confirmed observations (5).

Known Elevational Distribution: 0-400m (6)

Complete Geographic Distribution: Native to North America and Canada. S. hispida is currently found from South Dakota south to Texas and east to New York. It is also found in New Hampshire and Connecticut (5).
Smilax tamnoides cf June 21e crop
Vegetative Plant Description: S. hispida is a stout, climbing vine that can grow up to 10m long. The branches spread slightly and are clone-forming. The plant climbs using tendrils borne in pairs on the petioles. Leaves of S. hispida are alternate and simple, with 5-12cm long blades that are 3-9cm wide and broadly ovate, acute, or cuspidate. They are also rough-margined or with a few minute bristle-tipped teeth. The leaves are thin, dark green, glabrous on both sides, and there are usually 5 primary veins, that run parallel-arcuate, with at least 3 of them uniting at the apex. The leaves fall off the plant from above the petiole base. The petioles are 1-2cm long and bear tendrils. Twigs are slender, round, green, glabrous, and armed with straight, slender, blackish prickles that can be up to 1.2 cm long. The lower stem is densely covered with the bristles, whereas actively growing shoots and younger branches are mostly clear of them. Pith is absent, vascular bundles are scattered throughout the stem, and there is no definite leaf scar (2,3,4,5,6,7,8). 

Climbing Mechanism: The plant climbs using tendrils borne in pairs on the petioles (4,7,8).Smilax tamnoides pet spines

Flower Description: The flowers of S. hispida are unisexual and species is dioecious. The plants bear few to many flowered umbels with peduncles up to 7cm long with each branch bearing 4-12 flowers. The flowers are small and green to yellowish. The tiny perianth is bronze to greenish. There are 3 lanceolate sepals and 3 petals. There are usually 6 distinct to slightly connate stamens and 3 connate superior carpels (2,4,5,7,8,11).

Flowering Time: S. hispida blooms in late spring between May and June (7,2,4,8).

Pollinator: S. hispida is insect pollinated by both bees and flies (4,11).

Fruit Type and Description: The berries of S. hispida are black and globose at maturity. For the most part, there is only one seed but rarely there are two. The fruit is ~5-8mm across. The fruit ripens during the later months of fall in October and November (2,3,4,7,8). 

Smilax_tamnoides,_leaf_fruit,I_MO976_1Seed Description: Seeds are a shiny reddish brown and they are subglobose (2,4).

Dispersal Syndrome: The fruits of S. hispida are bird-dispersed, observed at least for thrushes (11, 16).

Distinguished by: S. hispida is best identifiable at a glance by the many needlelike, nearly black, lustrous prickles on the lower parts of the stems. It can be distinguished from Dioscorea villosa by the presence of petiole tendrils, which are absent in Dioscorea.  In addition, Dioscorea has as many as 9 veins arching to the apex whereas S. hispida has only 3-5 (3).  Menispermum canadensis is a similar alternate-leaved climber that does not bear the strong arching veins and no petiole tendrils. 

Other members of the family in Michigan: There are 6 other species of Smilax in Michigan: Smilax ecirrhata, Smilax herbacea, Smilax illinoensis, Smilax lasioneura, Smilax pulverulenta, and Smilax rotundifolia. Smilax is the sole genus in the Smilacaceae (5). 

Ethnobotanical Uses: S. hispida has many ethnobotanical uses. The stem prickles can berubbed on the skin as a counter-irritant to relieve localized pains, muscle cramps, and twitching. The stems are used as a general tonic. Tea made from the leaves and stems has been used in the treatment of rheumatism and stomach problems. The wilted leaves are applied as a poultice to boils. A mixture of the crushed root has been used as a wash on ulcers, particularly leg ulcers. A tea made from the roots is used to help the expelling of afterbirth. Reports that the roots contain testosterone have not been confirmed, but they might contain steroid precursors (9).

SMILSmilaxhispida(tamnoides)MAPPhylogenetic Information: The Smilacaeae is a member 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 (10).

Interesting Quotation or Other Interesting Factoid not inserted above:
According to Iroquois medicine, in addition to S. hispida being used for several of the ailments above the Iroquois used it to “bring about bad luck, accidents, or death”. In conjunction with Rosa acicularis, S. hispida is used to make a doll similar to a voodoo doll. It also can be used with Crataeus submollis to “kill a woman who is using you bad”. Interestingly enough, all three of these species that are being used for voodoo and black magic have spines or thorns (14). 

Literature and websites used:

  1. Voss, E.G. 1972.  Michigan Flora Part I: Gymnosperms and Monocots. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA: Cranbrook Institute of Science.
  2. Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th ed. New York, USA: American Book Company.
  3. Godfrey, R.K. 1988. Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Northern Florida and Adjacent Georgia and Alabama. Athens, Georgia, USA: The University of Georgia Press.
  4. Barnes, B.V. and W.H. Wagner 1992. Michigan Trees: A Guide to the trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: The University of Michigan Press.
  5. USDA, NRCS. 2007. The PLANTS Database (, 25 January 2008). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
  6. 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
  7. Johnson, F.L. and B.W. Hoagland 1999. Okalahoma Biological Survey ( 25 January 2008)
  8. Seiler, J.R., E.C. Jensen, and J. A. Peterson 2008. Virginia Tech Fact Sheets for Tree Identification ( 30 January 2008)
  9. Plants For A Future, 1996-2003. Last modified: June 2004. ( 30 January 2008)
  10. Solomon, J. 2006. W3TROPICOS VAST nomenclatural database. Missouri Botanical Garden. ( 30 January 2008)
  11. Judd, W.S., C.S. Campbell, E.A. Kellogg and P.F. Stevens. 1999. Plant Systematics: A Phylogenetic Approach.  Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.
  12. Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Last modified: March 19, 2008 ( 18 March 2008)
  13. Kartesz, J. 2000. ITIS Standard Report Page. 1996-2008 ( 26 March 2008)
  14. Herrick, J.W. 1995. Iroquois Medical Botany. Syracuse, New York, USA: The Syracuse University Press.
  15. Brown, R. W. 1956. Composition of Scientific Words. Washington, D.C., USA: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  16. Malmborg, P.K. and M.F. Willson 1988. Foraging ecology of avian frugivores and some consequences for seed dispersal in an Illinois woodlot. The Condor 90(1):173-186.

Image Credits (all used with permission):
1) Photo of stem with leaf © Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan
2, 3, 4) Photos of leaves, tendrils, and stem prickles © Robyn J. Burnham, University of Michigan
5) Image of fruit from George Yatskievych and Discover Life
6) Species distribution map, derived from the Michigan Flora Online.

Primary Authors: Bradley Sisson, with editing and additions by John Bradtke and Robyn J. 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”