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.
Every late spring a shady corner of the hayfield is bright blue with the flowers of a pretty weed. The area is about 5 feet square and has not increased noticeably in size over the years. Having learned my lesson from the yellow rattle about allowing pretty weeds in the hayfield, I decided to research this lovely blue flower. Turns out it is Germander speedwell, Veronica chamaedrys, a member of the Plantain family.
Germander speedwell was introduced to New England and is native to Britain and Europe. A perennial herb with rhizomes, it is termed a turf weed due to its tenacious ability to survive with grass. The name Germander has nothing to do with Germany. It is a corruption of the pronunciation of chamaedrys. The herb has a long association with healing and was well known and widely used over 500 years ago. The high tannin content of the leaves and stems makes an astringent tea that was favored for respiratory tract and nervous system ailments and as a treatment for stomach ulcers. It was also used as a poultice on the skin, especially for itching.
The flowers are large for a turf weed, measuring a half-inch across. Each flower lasts only one day and wilts quickly on picking. This trait earned the plant the sobriquet Mannertreu or Men’s Faithfulness in Germany. Apparently German men had a reputation for short-lived faithfulness. During extended rainy spells, the flowers do not open. They are able to self-pollinate. In France the plant was often used as a substitute for Asian tea, due to a similar smell and flavor, and went by the name Europe Tea. The seeds are said to be favored by birds.
Because this weed can out-compete grass, I will be keeping a close eye on it. Should the size of the patch increase, I will mercilessly eradicate the little speedwell. So far the plant has restricted itself to one shady spot under an ancient maple and causes no problem in the field.
During a recent walk on our farm I found this patch of white flowers. The single leaf has a distinctive growth habit of wrapping around the flower stem. The early blooming spring plant is called bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. It is native to northeastern North America. Bloodroot grows in moist to dry conditions, from woods to floodplains, in full sun to shade. I did not detect any fragrance in the flowers.
Bloodroot has a rhizome that grows close to the surface. It sends out shoots in early spring and is pollinated by bees and flies. The flowers produce pollen, but no nectar. The plant is spread by ants who carry the seeds away to their colonies to eat the attached elaoisomes. After the flower is pollinated and the petals drop, the leaf enlarges and unfurls. By the time the seeds develop, the leaves begin to yellow and die away. The plant then goes dormant until next spring.
Bloodroot earned its name from the bright red juice in the rhizome. When the root is damaged, it appears to bleed. Bloodroot is poisonous. The chemicals in the sap can burn the skin. In times of old, people used the juice to burn away warts and even cancer. It was a dangerous and somewhat ineffective treatment that often resulted in severe skin damage. The plant extract was also touted as a cure all and sometimes ingested. Its use has been linked to cancerous growth in the mouth due to skin damage.
So it is best to enjoy the fleeting beauty of bloodroot flowers from a distance. Do not pick or otherwise disturb this wild spring beauty.