Smilax tamnoides (Bristly Greenbrier)

Plant Info
Also known as: Chinaroot
Family:Smilacaceae (Catbrier)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, shade; average to moist soil; deciduous woods, thickets, floodplains, wooded slopes, bluffs, stream and river banks
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:10 to 30 foot vine
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: FAC NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 6-petals Cluster type: round

[photo of male flowers] Numerous loose, hemispheric flower clusters 1 to 2 inches across, each on a long stalk and containing up to 25 flowers, with male and female flowers on separate plants (dioecious). Flowers are about ¼ inch across with 6 green to yellow-green tepals (petals and similar sepals). Male flowers have 6 creamy white to pale yellow-tipped stamens.

[photo of female flower clusters] Female flowers have a green, round ovary with a 3-parted style at the tip. Both male and female clusters arise singly from the leaf axils on this year's new branchlets, with or before the leaves. A flower stalk is longer than the associated leaf stalk and is initially erect but often becomes drooping.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, 2 to 6+ inches long, 1 to 5 inches wide, mostly egg-shaped, rounded to pointed at the tip, rounded to heart-shaped at the base, on a stalk up to ¾ inch long. The upper surface is hairless, the lower hairless though may have a few prickles along major veins. Edges are minutely toothed, especially near the base. Leaves along most of the stem typically have a pair of long tendrils at the base of the stalk; these tendrils twine around supporting vegetation and enable the plant to climb.

[photo of stem prickles] New branches are green, turning brown with age, and variably covered in dark brown to blackish prickles of varying sizes. Lower stems are usually densely prickly while upper stems are more sparsely so, or sometimes smooth. Stems are branched, erect to ascending, or more sprawling when supporting vegetation is not available, single or multiple from the woody base. Plants may form colonies from short, knotty rhizomes.

Fruit: Fruit type: berry/drupe

[photo of developing fruit] Fruit is a round berry 1/3 inch or so in diameter that ripens from green to black.


Of the 4 Smilax species known to be in Minnesota, Bristly Greenbrier is the easiest to identify since it is the only one with a prickly stem, though prickles may be few on the upper stem. There is some debate over whether this species should be named S. tamnoides or S. hispida, and while the consensus seems to be moving towards S. hispida, S. tamnoides is the currently accepted name in Minnesota.

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More photos

Photos by Peter M. Dziuk taken in Hennepin, Scott, Washington, and Winona counties. Photo by Daniel L. Nickrent used by permission via PhytoImages.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Pamela Budge - Bloomington, mn
on: 2019-06-17 06:50:07

Found at Normandale lake park climbing buckthorn. Almost tropical looking. So happy that it's native, which likely means it won't strangle the buckthorn, but a body can hope.

Posted by: LouAnne Machacek - Northfield
on: 2019-09-13 15:31:26

Found only one vine in my shrub bed. Had tornadoes last fall. Who knows where it blew in from.

Posted by: Craig Lenz - HUTCHINSON
on: 2019-11-11 14:40:30

There is quite a bit of around Cedar Lake in McLoed Co. Also glad to hear it is not invasive.

Posted by: Ethan Jordan - Breezy point
on: 2019-12-04 17:34:24

Found in Breezy Point in Crow Wing County, which is several counties out of its projected range. Was found without thorns.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2019-12-04 18:27:28

Ethan, if it has no prickles then it is either one of the other Smilax species or something else altogether.

Posted by: kat - ramsey, mn
on: 2020-04-18 18:39:54

are fruits edible? My plant has bright green stems coming out of ground covered in brown bristles?

Posted by: Susan Premo - All over
on: 2020-10-15 21:28:19

I first saw this vine at Ft. Snelling, under the Mendota bridge. I kept calling it by the wrong name, but I thought it rather fitting, I called it goliath. It's a mean looking plant. Now I see it all over southeastern, here, st. Paul & northern Minnesota.

Posted by: Kim Erickson - Anoka
on: 2021-04-26 15:42:51

I just noticed this vine at close to the Rum River at Rum River Central Park in Anoka County. It is so distinctive looking with all the thorns covering the stems. It was still leafless (mid-April) when I saw it.

Posted by: Susan Lucking - Chaska
on: 2021-06-05 12:34:30

I found a bristly greenbrier growing in my backyard amongst my raspberry bushes.

Posted by: Jane - Wabasha county, Mazeppa township
on: 2021-08-30 13:11:36

Found many of these plants on our 1.5 acres near the Zumbro river that also has a pond and stream along our property lines. Very sharp spikey stems at root end, dark glossy leaves that appear jungle-like and are up to six inches across, they climb trees. Often found near buckthorn we are harvesting, so somehow they co-exist without being destroyed.

Posted by: Patty Tanji - Eagan
on: 2022-05-02 07:45:52

There is a red vine like plant that is very thorny growing around the catch pond in my yard. It appears to arise and then attach itself to the ground so it makes an arc. I pulled in it and broke the vine. What is it?

Posted by: K Chayka
on: 2022-05-02 14:28:23

Patty, your description isn't sufficient to attempt an ID. Post some images on the Minnesota Wildflowers Facebook page if you'd like further assistance.

Posted by: C LARSON - Redwood county, Charleston township
on: 2022-09-08 13:20:05

Found this thorny fellow vining up my black walnut tree in the grove. Don't know how it got here, but yeow! What a set of thorns.

Posted by: Bonnie P Watkins - St Paul
on: 2023-06-21 13:00:55

Smilax is featured as edible "weird pickle" in a delightful video by the Black Forager.

Posted by: Luke Bellville - Mendota
on: 2023-07-16 13:11:21

This interesting vine- shrub is growing in a few spots on the edge of the forest along the Mississippi River. I had not seen it before.

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