“Wait a minute, I'm caught.”
You hear this expression frequently when threading through a dense thicket of this stuff.
That gives us one common name for this group of plants: “wait-a-minute vine.” (“Blaspheme-vine” is another name, usually saved for the situations involving the thickest, meanest, most prickly patches.)
The stickeriness of the plants is quite variable, however. In my experience, most of the stickers are on older portions, or older stems, of the plants. The newer growth with the fresh leaves frequently doesn't have too many prickles.
This plant comes from a very familiar group of species that are related to the lily family.
Counted together as a genus, there are nearly 400 species worldwide, mostly in the tropics, but about 20 get well into temperate North America. These species may be evergreen or deciduous, woody or herbaceous, and most of them are vines. Some species are densely armed with prickles, while others are smooth and sticker-free.
This mystery plant is widespread in eastern North America, from New England into the Great Plains, and down south through all the Southern states. It is no shrinking violet.
It comes up from a massive, woody rhizome, and is tough as nails – its woody vinery often climbing high into trees or over shrubbery. (Thin tendrils at the leaf bases make this possible.)
Its tender foliage appears in the spring, becoming tough and leathery as the leaves age. Being deciduous, the leaves fall away, although sometimes slowly, so even at this time of year, you can sometimes find a plant holding onto its brilliant red leaves.
The early-summer flowers are small and green-yellow, individually star-shaped, and somewhat smelly. Berries are formed, first green, then attractively shiny and purplish-black, prized as food for a number of wildlife species.
This species is one of several woody plants that are major components of the natural wetland plant community that we call a “pocosin,” or shrub bog, and which are probably best developed in the coastal plain of the Southeastern states. Pocosins are fascinating, albeit somewhat challenging habitats for a naturalists.
A well-developed pocosin, especially during a growing season following a fire, will feature a nearly – or absolutely – impenetrable thickets of various shrubs, nearly always interwoven and overtopped by wave upon wave of this mystery plant.
Because of its thorny nature, and tendency to climb and form thickets, these plants, and most of its near relatives, are usually unwelcome in gardens. On the other hand, in places where it can grow freely, it provides plenty of fall color (foliage and fruits), and is a good source of food and cover for many of the birds and critters.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: “Bamboo vine”, Smilax laurifolia