Jim McKenney
Thu, 01 Jul 2010 11:16:25 PDT
Are there any other smilax enthusiasts out there? In the old days this genus
was included in the Liliaceae, but now it gets a family of its own, the
Smilacaceae. Some are reviled as obnoxious weeds, some are hugely
ornamental. The ones I grow range in size from little S. pumila and S.
bifolia to mighty S. smallii which covers the side of our house and part of
the roof, tangled with noisette roses and Campsis × tagliabuana Mme Galen.
The smilax is the boss of that group.  

Most species have black fruits, but S. walteri has very ornamental red
fruits. It’s a treat to visit the black water swamps of the southeastern
states during the winter and find broad tangles of this species spangled
with the bright red fruits – but at first you’ll probably be tricked by the
more numerous red-fruited deciduous hollies. 
Some of the southern species flower regularly here and set fruit, but the
resulting seed do not survive the winters here. 
I’ve always liked these plants and had a few in the garden. It’s hard to
find anyone else with much of an interest in them. Professional
horticulturists in general neglect them, although in the early twentieth
century no less a luminary than Beatrix Farrand used them on some of the
walls of Princeton University (or so I recall reading). 
Most I grow in the open, but little S. pumila gets cold frame treatment. Its
mottled leaves (in the style of some Asarum) make it worth the space. It
will survive indefinitely in the open here in a sheltered spot, but the
fruit will not ripen in the open air and bad winters can damage the plant
I’m training S. laurifolia onto the deck: so far, it has climbed to the 10’
level. Mature plants in the wild are awesome, like something out of some
lost world fantasy. The canes sometimes go thirty or more feet straight up
into trees – I assume they have grown up with the trees.  I grew my plants
form seed collected more than fifteen years ago after a storm had brought
down some smilax festooned trees – otherwise I never would have been able to
reach the seed. This species has great ornamental value but is almost
completely neglected. The foliage suggests that of Clematis armandii or
Holboellia – it’s a rare garden visitor who has any idea what it is. There
is nothing else like it in our indigenous flora. 
The flowers of S. smallii are sweetly fragrant. Other species such as S.
herbacea smell of carrion. When I was a kid I used to think of S. herbacea
as “hardy philodendron” – it resembles that house plant (the heart-leaf
climber)  a lot. 
Are they geophytes? Some grow from clusters of banana like tuberous growths.

Sarsaparilla was (still is?) made from some tropical species. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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