I found this plant last year. It grows on our land along a rock wall in partial shade beside an orchard and pasture. The bunches of berries caught my attention. Two days later I returned to photograph the plant and all the berries were gone! This year when I spotted it, I took pictures immediately. The plant is called Jacob’s Ladder or the Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea.) It is a member of the catbriar family although it has no thorns. The large bunches of berries provide an attractive display in the early fall woodland. This particular vine is at least eight feet long.
The plant is an herbaceous vine that dies to the ground in fall. It is a perennial native to Maine and the eastern half of the US and Canada. The Smooth Carrion Flower is distinguished from other species of Smilax by the lack of hairs on the underside of the leaf and by the very long stem that holds the berry bunch on the vine. The vine grows up to eight feet long, supporting itself by curling tendrils around the stems and branches of woody neighbors. The plants are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. One of each sex is required to produce fruit on the female plant.The leaves are somewhat shiny and heart-shaped. The plant’s name is derived from the smell of the globular bunches of greenish-yellow flowers. They stink like rotten meat. The scent attracts carrion flies, the main pollinator. The round berries average 3/8″ in diameter and are a deep purple-blue color. All the parts of this plant are edible. It is browsed by deer. The berries are eaten by birds and small mammals. The shoots and tendrils can be consumed raw or cooked like asparagus. The berries are edible. They may be made into jam or jelly. A gelling agent can be extracted from the root.
It is too late in the year to find shoots or young tendrils on the plant. I tasted a raw young leaf and found its flavor very leaf-like (haha!) The berries I tried were dry and pulpy inside, not juicy. They tasted bland and vaguely sweet. The berry skin has a mild grape-like flavor to me. I don’t know if the berries may be juicy earlier when they first ripen, I suspect not. There are six seeds in each berry that resemble grape seeds. The berries stained my saliva deep purple. I suppose if I were starving in the woods, I would welcome a belly full of the berries, otherwise, they aren’t very exciting to eat. They are nice to look at.
The native Americans used the plant as food and medicine. Root extract is said to analgesic and the leaves were used as poultices for burns and boils. Early American settlers used the root as an ingredient in root beer along with some parched corn, molasses and sassafras. I prefer not to devour the plant. It’s better to let it grow to provide seasonal interest and food for wildlife.