Carrion flower is a native perennial forb with annual ascending stems, that can branch and reach from to seven feet. Tendrils are few and short or entirely absent. Stems are smooth, have no prickles and have tendrils at most leaf axils to help in climbing.
The leaves are alternate and evenly distributed on the stem, but the lower leaves are smaller and narrower. They usually number more than 25, are ovate to round in shape, parallel veins, and with a rounded to shortly pointed tip. Bases are heart-shaped. Leaf margins are generally smooth. The undersides are more pale in color with fine hair. 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 leaf stalk of S. lasioneura is shorter than the leaf blade.
The inflorescence consists of a number of ball-like umbels that are about 1 and 1/2 inches wide that forms at the end of a stalk that rises from the leaf axils. The stalk is slightly longer than a leaf stalk. Each umbel can have up to 35 flowers. Plants of the Smilax genus are dioecious, that is, male and female flowers are separate and on separate plants.
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 equal or longer in length then the anthers. Female flowers (pistillate) have a pistil with a 3-parted recurved stigma (style may be absent) and may have 6 infertile stamens (staminodes). Each flower is on a short stalk. 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 (8-10 mm) blue-black berries that each contain 2 to 4 seeds.
Habitat: The plant grows from a short, woody rhizomatous base. A plant of woodlands and open areas growing best in wet mesic to dry mesic moisture conditions and tolerates full sun to full shade.
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 author name for the plant classification - ‘Hook.’ is for William Hooker, (1785-1865), English Botanist, author, collector, Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow and the first director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. His work on North American plants was mostly published in Flora Boreali-Americana.
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. Another look-a-like species found in Minnesota is S. illinoensis, the Illinois Carrion-flower, which is erect and the same size, but has a number of tendrils, umbels rising from bracts, but the leaves have rounded to truncate bases and leaf stalks are always equal to or longer than the leaf blade. The umbels, while still located below the leaves, are more in number, have up to 50 flowers and are on long stalks. The closest look-a-like species is S. ecirrhata, the Upright Carrion Flower, but it has umbels rising from small bracts on the lower stem below the leaves, not from the leaf axils. While the leaves also have heart shaped bases, they are fewer in number and located on the upper 1/2 to 2/3rds of the stem, which grows to no more than 3 feet in length and has few or no tendrils.
Above: An example of Common Carrion Flower, S. ecirrhata where the stem is more vine-like with tendrils to add in climbing.
Below: 1st photo - Detail of the flower umbel of staminate flowers. 2nd photo - Numerous tendrils rise from the leaf axils. 3rd photo - Leaf underside with fine whitish hairs.
Below: Oval shape leaf with heart-shaped base, leaf stalk shorter than the leaf blade, parallel main veins.
Below: Comparison drawing of (1st drawing) S. ecirrhata. and (2nd drawing) S. lasioneura. Note that in the former there are few or any tendrils and the inflorescence rises from a small bract whereas in the latter, there are tendrils and the inflorescence rises from the leaf axils. 1st drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 2nd drawing ©Flora of North America
Below: 1st photo - The inflorescence is a ball-like umbel of up to 35 flowers. 2nd photo - The stalks of the umbels rise from the leaf axils.
Below: Another view, with fruit forming, of the stalks of the umbels rising from the leaf axils.
Below: 1st photo - berries in mid-JUne. 2nd photo - Mature fruits can be dark blue to black, each containing 2 to 4 seeds.
Notes: It is not clear when Common Carrion Flower entered the Garden. Eloise Butler did not list it or note it in her Garden Logs. Martha Crone, in her 1951 Garden plant census did not list it, but it is present in the Garden. It is indigenous to Wirth Park which surrounds the Garden. S. lasioneura is very prevalent in Minnesota and as the name "common" implies, it is found in most counties of Minnesota, except some of the more dry counties in the SW Quadrant. S. herbacea, the Smooth Carrion Flower, according to recent DNR surveys is found in only seven counties in Minnesota, all in the northern part of the state.
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.
In North America S. lasioneura is found in the Central Plains area, westward into the Rocky Mountians, Eastward into the Ohio Valley and south to the Gulf Coast. Absent in the Northeast area.
Lore: In her study of the plants used by the Minnesota Chippewa, Densmore (Ref. 5) reports on the use of S. herbacea: 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 the smooth carrion flower which inhabits the eastern section of North America: "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.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"