The beloved Bullbrier…What would you think if I told you there was more than likely something akin to free asparagus growing all around you? You might think I’d gone wacky if you’d never been introduced to this incredible edible plant.
Bullbrier or Smilax bona-nox is known in Cedar Creek, SC as “wait-a-minute vine”, according to my mentor in permaculture who comes from those parts. Anyone who’s encountered the mature briers when romping through the woods understands that name. This stuff scales fences and trees, is covered in thorns and has a root mass bigger than your car’s engine block. Lawn enthusiasts and gardeners go mad trying to eradicate it. Good luck. But this foraging family eagerly awaits its spring arrival so we can graze it until the fall. Bullbrier is one member of the genus Smilax. The young growing tips of smilax species have folded up leaves, often soft thorns your tongue never notices, and curling tendrils. They’re anywhere from the thickness of a coffee stirrer to the size of a fat asparagus spear. They’re generally nutty tasting and delicious, though some species can be bitter. The fail-proof species in terms of delectable flavor in our area is bullbrier. This one you’re most likely to find on sunny edges and fence lines.
If you’re holding a fresh shoot you think is bullbrier, here’s some questions to answer:
- Does it have thorns along the more mature part of the plant (and possibly on the freshest growth)?
- Does it have tendrils?
- Are it’s youngest leaves and tendrils copper colored and glossy?
- Are it’s leaves heart shaped (or some derivative of heart shaped) and often covered in lighter colored speckles?
If all of these check out, you most likely have bullbrier. But so no one gets hurt and I don’t lose my shirt, here’s a disclaimer. Don’t eat a plant based on my description or these photographs. Do further research, follow me or someone else on a plant walk, make sure you are 100 % positive on its identification. That said, there’s nothing I know of around here that fits the above criteria and isn’t some kind of edible Smilax vine. In the spring start picking the first four to six inches of new growth and use it in salads. Keep picking into the summer to encourage plants to send out continuous new shoots. Bill Mollison, co-originator of permaculture, said,”Everything gardens.” Picking plants strategically to expand their edibility is an intervention humans and other animals have engaged in for millenia. In the Amazon it’s documented that former village sites, even centuries after abandonment, are surrounded by super concentrations of useful plants, propagated by forest dwellers with a light touch. This is the blurring line between foraging and gardening that entrances me. Both consumer and consumed live free, while influencing each other’s behavior. And liquid sunshine energy continues its dance round and round the food web. Somewhere nearby a bullbrier is creeping up a fence. Go out and ask it if you can have this dance.