Carrion flower is a native perennial forb with annual stems, that are unbranched and reach from one to three feet. Tendrils are few and short or entirely absent. Stems are smooth and have no prickles and with blade-less bracts below the leaves.
The leaves are alternate and located on the upper 1/2 to 2/3rds of the stem. They can number up to 20 but usually less than 10; they are widely oval in shape, with parallel veins, and with a rounded to shortly pointed tip. Bases are truncate to heart-shaped. Leaf margins are generally smooth. The undersides are 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. ecirrhata is shorter than the leaf blade.
The inflorescence consists of one to three ball-like umbels that are about 1 and 1/2 inches wide that form at the end of a stalk that rises from small bracts on the lower stem. Each umbel can have up to 25 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 more or less the same length as 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 blue-black berries that each contain 2 to 4 seeds.
Habitat: The plant grows from a short, woody rhizomatous base. A plant of moist woods growing best in partial sun, but is adaptable to 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, although this species lacks the tendrils to clasp anything. The author name for the plant classification - 'S.Watson' is for Sereno Watson (1826-1892), American Botanist, assistant to Asa Gray and later curator of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard.
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 and also has umbels rising from bracts, but it has a number of tendrils, 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. S. lasioneura, the Common Carrion Flower, has umbels rising from the leaf axils, is a climbing vine with tendrils from the leaf axils and the leaves, while having heart shaped bases, are evenly divided on the stem.
Above: An example of Upright Carrion Flower, S. ecirrhata where the inflorescence rises from a small bract on the stem.
Below: 1st photo - Detail of the flower umbel of staminate flowers. 2nd photo - Early buds of the flower cluster. 3rd photo - Leaf with a heart-shaped base.
Below: Mature fruits can be dark blue to black, each containing 2 to 4 seeds.
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
Notes: It is not clear when Upright Carrion Flower entered the Garden or if it is indigenous. Eloise Butler did not list it or note it in her early Garden Logs but did write about it as noted below, which perhaps indicates the species is indigenous based on her choice of words. Martha Crone, in her 1951 Garden plant census listed it as present. It is fairly prevalent in Minnesota being found in a number of northern counties but also found in many 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. According to recent DNR surveys, the Smooth Carrion Flower, S. herbacea, is found in only seven counties in Minnesota, all in the northern part of the state.
In North America S. ecirrhata is somewhat limited in range, with the the western edge being a line from the Dakotas south to Oklahoma and the eastern edge being Ohio and the Virginias. It is generally absent along the coastal states except Florida reports it. Absent in the Northeast. It is sometimes listed as present in Ontario, but the Ontario Wildflowers site does not report it.
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: "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"