I didn't know what it was at the time, but I do now.
We had just purchased the empty lot next door at our former residence, and my wife and I were doing the first cleanup. There was some trash, lots of downed limbs, volunteer plants that needed to be removed and vines. Lots and lots of vines.
I remember pulling on a vine that was climbing up into one of the scores of trees on the lot. I pulled and pulled and pulled. The vine was loose and started coming and coming. By the time we had gotten it out of the tree there was 75 feet or more of vine. It had grown from ground level to the top of the canopy and was enjoying a rather prosperous life until we pulled it down that winter day.
That was just the first of many such vines that had entwined themselves in the tree cover of the lot. I later learned that this was smilax. Before our move, my wife would go out and work in that lot planting all sorts of woodland-loving flora. Between plantings, she would perform the duties of groundskeeper removing unwanted plants and pruning the ones she had planted.
Often she would come in and complain about the smilax and how hard it was to weed it out. I listened but was not really too interested in a plant that didn't mean anything to me. My outdoor jobs were to mow the lawn and to wash the cars.
Then we moved, and I retired. Our new home has two distinct types of environments. One is an open, sunny front yard perfect for the perennial flowers that my wife tends there. The other is a tree-filled backyard that in many areas is as wild as the lot at our former home.
Since I have more time on my hand to do things outside these days, I have made efforts to do some clearing and sprucing up. Last summer we spent several days with chain saw, loppers, mattocks and shovels to clear an area inside our fence line. It had been filled with ligustrums, nandinas and wisteria so dense it was hard to find one's way through the thicket of branches, vines and leaves.
And there was smilax. I should have paid more attention when my wife was talking about smilax. Smilax is a nasty vine that starts out growing straight upward, forms sharp thorns, and when it reaches a tree it begins climbing.
This plant isn't satisfied to climb up just one tree. When it gets to the top of one, it continues into the upper boughs of a neighboring tree. I have pulled vines that have been over 100 feet long. But that is not the worst part of it.
Smilax is almost impossible to kill. Cutting the vine – even at ground level – is only a temporary setback for this voracious life form. Unseen to those of us who dwell above ground, smilax really adds insult to injury with its root system. Unless the roots are removed, the plant will say in its best Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, “I'll be back.” And it will.
Underground, the mature smilax has potato-like tubers that enlarge as the vine pumps more and more food from its leaves down the stem and into the heart of the plant. The higher the vine climbs, the more leaves it puts out to capture sunlight and utilize photosynthesis to turn these into super vines with super root systems.
In order to get smilax out of a yard or garden, one must dig out the tubers.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have worked in that 50-by-20-foot area to remove the new growth that has come up since last year's cutting. While there are still wisteria roots too numerous to count beneath the layer of leaves and pine straw, the real bad boy in the area is smilax.
I have used my trusty shovel to dig out the tubers. I've pulled individual seedlings as they have popped up. I have found new vines sprouting forth from the root of a nearby mature plant. These things are insidious.
I have begun a war on smilax, and I am not sure I will win this one. Every day that I go out to that part of the yard, I find evidence of new smilax coming forth. At this point, however, I am determined to eradicate this life form from that section of our property. The huge spikes on the other side of the fence will have to wait.
It is distressing, however, to find a smilax and begin digging out what I thought was a small tuber, only to find something much more beneath the soil. Wednesday I saw a new spike in an area I had already cleared (or so I thought).
I cleared the pine straw away so I could get my shovel into the ground and pop the tuber out. But this was the Godzilla of smilax tubers. The bumps of the tubers erupt ever-so-slightly above ground, and the more pine straw I cleared, the more smilax tubers were revealed.
For 45 minutes I dug and pulled and scraped and pushed. Clump after clump of tubers were tossed into the wheel barrow. After I had gotten several large pieces of the core of this plant, I looked and saw one huge, matted section still remaining.
There was a lot of straining, a lot of sweating and even some doubting as to whether this thing really ended. Finally it did. With one last mighty tug, the 3-foot by 3-foot mass came free from the earth, and the wheel barrow was full.
I could not believe the size of this clump of tubers, and so I decided to weigh it to see just how much of this single plant was lying beneath the ground (and I do hope I got it all!). To make this a more scientific assignment, I hosed off the roots so the remnants of soil would not be included in the measurement.
My wife and I got the bathroom scales, and she first weighed herself. That number will remain a private matter. I then loaded the smilax tubers and roots into her waiting arms. We subtracted the first weight of my wife by herself from the weight of her with the smilax to get our astounding total of 52 pounds!
I was heartened to get that much smilax out of the yard. But as I looked around, I could see many others sprouting – mostly on the outside of the fence line – and I can only wonder how many more pounds of smilax tubers there are out there.
But I will persevere. I will dig until all the smilax in the one area are gone, my shovel breaks or my will is broken. Unfortunately, with the weather getting lots hotter, my will may take a beating before the smilax does.
Jeff Wallace is a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.