Wild Arkansas

October 21, 2008

Wild Arkansas: Smilax

Filed under: Edible plants, foraging, Smilax — Tags: , , — WildArkansas @ 1:49 am

Crocus and Smilax may be turn’d to flow’rs,
And the Curetes spring from bounteous show’n

I pass a hundred legends stale, as these,
And with sweet novelty your taste to please.

Ovid, Metamorphosis

Historically, the Smilax and Crocus are bound together by myth and geography. The myth of Smilax and the Spartan youth Krokos takes many forms, but one of the most common is that of the two falling in love and in typical Greek fashion tragedy befalling the couple with the death of Smilax as witnessed by her lover, Krokos. The gods, having pity for the grief-stricken boy changed him into a flower—the saffron crocus and Smilax into the bindweed, forever entwining the two.

The Smilax-Saffron bouquet was used regularly in Roman weddings and the genus has been written about throughout history, as far back as Discorides, (Materia Medica, 65 A.D.).

Though I have found second-hand references to the plant being a poison preventative according to both Discorides and Pliny, I have found no such reference from either author at the original sources. Looking through the translated version of De Materia Medica (Book II, pg. 300), Discorides says that the berries are eaten as a vegetable with the seed, but produce urine and bad dreams.

Pliny’s reference is much the same with the author stating that, “This plant is looked upon as ill-omened, and is consequently banished from all sacred rites, and is allowed to form no part of chaplets; having received this mournful character from the maiden Smilax, who upon her love being slighted by the youth Crocus, was transformed into this shrub. The common people, being mostly ignorant of this, not unfrequently take it for ivy, and pollute their festivities with its presence; for who, in fact, is unaware [p. 3403] that the ivy is used as a chaplet by poets, as also by Father Liber and Silenus. Tablets are made of the wood of the smilax, and it is a peculiarity of this wood to give out a slight sound, if held close to the ear. It is said that ivy is remarkably efficacious for testing wine, and that a vessel made of this wood will let the wine pass through it, while the water will remain behind, if there has been any mixed with it.” [See reference].

There are twenty different species of Smilax growing in North America, with the most common varieties being the rotundifolia and the tamonides, though the Jamaican variety, S. regelii (used in sarsaparilla) is also grown throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas.

Human civilization has a long history of use of Smilax in its various forms (species), but the most common use has been that of its medicinal properties which range from asthma treatment to syphilis.

Many of the species are difficult to tell apart, because they are similar in appearance, with only chemical constituents or minute details being accurate indications of differences between the plants.

When I first came into contact with the plant and received help with identification, there was a toss-up on whether the species was a California native (californica) or the more common rotundifolia, because of the similarities between the two.

I have since come to the conclusion that the species growing locally (Lowell, AR) is the rotundifolia, simply because the californica species is restricted to regions of California and the rotundifolia is most common in this region.

Edibility for this plant is quite high with most parts of the plant being edible. The young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked in stir-fry or boiled and the roots have been used dried as a flour substitute.

An Oklahoma herbalist wrote in an email that her grandmother had used the flour of Smilax and the leaves as wound dressing and for their drawing purposes.

According to most references, the smilax shoots are used in the same way as asparagus, in fact Discorides mentions this in his writings on the plant.

Green Deane of Eat the Weeds fame also has an article and video about the Smilex bona-nox with a bit more culinary information than what’s provided here.

Bon apetit!

Some additional references:

Wild Plants of Malta article

Reference from Perseus: The Natural History, Pliny the Elder


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