Carrion flower is a native perennial vine with annual stems, that can climb to 7 feet tall. Tendrils form from the leaf axils, stems are smooth and have no prickles and usually branch.
The leaves are alternate and can vary in shape but are usually oval with 7 to 9 parallel veins and taper to a pointed tip. Bases are truncate to heart-shaped. Leaf margins are generally smooth. The undersides are smooth. Smilax leaves are unusual in that they lack an abscission layer to separate the leaf at the end of the season. Instead the upper portion of the leaf stalk (the petiole) softens and disintegrates, allowing the leaf to fall off leaving a short stub.
The inflorescence is a ball-like umbel that is about 1 and 1/2 inches wide that forms at the end of a stalk that is much longer than the leaf stalks. These rise from the upper and middle stem leaf axils. Plants of the Smilax genus are dioecious, that is, male and female flowers are separate and on separate plants. Each plant can have many umbels, each having 20 to 100+ flowers.
Flowers: The 6-part flowers are minute and have 6 greenish-yellow tepals, each 3.5 to 4.5 mm long. Male flowers (staminate) have 6 stamens whose filaments are much longer than the anthers. Female flowers (pistillate) have a pistil with a 3-parted recurved stigma (style may be absent) and may have 6 infertile stamens (staminoides). Flowers have a scent of death when open, hence the common name.
Fruit: In Autumn a round fruit cluster is formed of 3/8 inch diameter blue-black berries that each contain 2 to 4 seeds.
Habitat: The plant grows from short, thick tubers. A plant of moist woods growing best in partial sun, and for support it uses other plants or fence posts, etc.
Names: The genus Smilax, is from the Greek, meaning 'clasping' and was applied by the Greeks to the various Greenbriers (or Catbriers) to which type this plant belongs. The species herbacea, is used to refer to species that are herbaceous, not woody, as in the case of this species where the stems die back each fall. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: In close resemblance to this species are the Greenbriers which are similar climbing vines of this genus and produce similar blue-black berries. Roundleaf Greenbrier, S. rotundifolia, has rounded leaves, and usually have stem prickles and Bristly Greenbrier, S. tamnoides, which has leaves more oval and the stems usually have bristly hair but can be smooth and angled. In both Greenbriers, the flower umbel stalk is no longer than a leaf stalk. The closest species is S. ecirrhata, the Upright Carrion-flower, which has few tendrils and only reaches to 3 feet high. The leaves crowd into the upper 2/3rds of the stem and the flowers usually number less than 25 in the inflorescence which rises from a bract, not a leaf axil. See photo and the comparison drawings below.
Above: 1st photo - Detail of the flower umbel of staminate flowers. 2nd photo - Early buds of the flower cluster. 3rd photo - Within a month of flowering, the fruit is already well formed.
Below: 1st photo - an example of Upright Carrion Flower, S. ecirrhata where the inflorescence rises from a small bract on the stem, not from a leaf axil. Note also the tall stalks of the flower umbels which applies to both species. 2nd photo - Early spring leaf shape. 3rd photo - Mature leaf shape.
Below: Mature fruits can be dark blue to black, each containing 2 to 4 seeds.
Below: Comparison drawing of (1st photo) S. herbacea and (2nd photo) S. ecirrhata. Note that in the former there are many tendrils and the inflorescence rises from a leaf axil, whereas in the latter, there are few tendrils and the inflorescence rises from a small bract.
Notes: Carrion Flower is indigenous to the Garden. Eloise Butler noted it in her log on May 31, 1907. Martha Crone, in her 1951 Garden plant census listed as present S. ecirrhata, the Upright Carrion Flower, which is a similar but smaller plant than the species listed in the current Garden census although it appears to be still extant in the Woodland Garden. Both plants are native but S. ecirrhata has not been listed on any later census. According to recent DNR surveys, S. herbacea is found in only seven counties in Minnesota, all in the northern part of the state. It is native to the entire eastern half of the United States and Canada. Much more prevalent in Minnesota is S. ecirrhata, which is found in most of those seven counties containing S. herbacea, but also found in many other counties that are in the central and southern part of the state, including the metro area.
There are five species of Smilax found in Minnesota: S. ecirrhata, Upright Carrion-flower; S. herbacea, Smooth Carrion Flower; S. illinoensis, Illinois Greenbrier (or Illinois Carrion Flower); S. lasioneura, Blue Ridge Greenbrier (or Common Carrion Flower); and S. tamnoides, Bristly Greenbrier. S. pulverulenta, Downy Carrion-flower, has been reported but never collected. About 20 species are found in North America.
Lore: In her study of the plants used by the Minnesota Chippewa, Densmore (Ref. 5) reports on the use of this plant: First, a decoction of the root with other roots added was used for digestive problems; second, a decoction of the root by itself was used for urinary problems and for pain in the back (kidneys). The Chippewa name for this plants translates as "bear root". Medicine men would always carry the root of this plant in a bag made of bear paws.
Edwin Way Teale wrote of this plant: "It fills the air around it with its own particular perfume - the overpowering dead-mouse smell of decaying flesh. Its scientific name is Smilax herbacea, but its eminently appropriate common name is carrion flower. In rounded sprays of small greenish-tinged flowers, the blooms appear on a vine that is related to the Catbrier. Small flies and beetles, I notice, are attracted to them." from A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm. 1974
Eloise Butler wrote: "Barring the malodorous Skunk Cabbage which had to be introduced into my bog, the equally offensive Carrion flower which is forgiven on account of the picturesque vine and big bells of dark purple berries.... at all times the garden dispenses sweet fragrance." From The Fragrance of the Wild Garden - Feb. 1915, unpublished.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"