Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Saw Greenbrier - Smilax bona-nox   L.
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Section 5 » Order Liliales » Family Smilacaceae
DistributionThroughout the Coastal Plain and Piedmont; scattered in the central and southern Mountains, but apparently absent from the northern Mountains.

Mostly a Southern species, ranging north only to southern DE, northern VA, and southeastern KS. It occurs south to the Gulf Coast from FL to TX.
AbundanceCommon and widespread over the Coastal Plain and nearly all of the Piedmont. Uncommon to fairly common in the southern Mountains, at least at low elevations; rare in the higher and more northerly Mountains and northwestern Piedmont. Despite the considerable amount of low elevations in the southwestern counties (Cherokee, Graham, and Clay), there seem to be no records from this part of the state.
HabitatThis vine has a very wide range of habitats, especially in thickets, wooded borders, openings in forests, and other semi-disturbed places. It can be found in forest interiors, both in floodplains and uplands. In maritime counties it inhabits stable dunes and maritime forests (var. littoralis). Thus, it has no distinctive or dominant habitats in the state.
PhenologyFlowers from late April into May, and fruits from September into November.
IdentificationThis is a woody, mostly evergreen or semi-evergreen vine that normally grows over shrubs and smaller trees and is not normally high-climbing. The stem usually has scattered prickles and lower portions have a grainy or scurfy surface not found in other Smilax. The leaves are often strongly fiddle-shaped or hastate-shaped, with truncate bases. The leaves are thickened along the margins, which are beset with numerous small spines; they also are typically blotched with areas of pale green. Leaves average about 3-4 inches long. The fruits are small and rounded berries, blackish in color. As this is such a numerous and widespread species over most of the state, observers should quickly become familiar with this greenbrier, as the spiny leaf margins are different from other Smilax species.
Taxonomic CommentsWeakley (2018) lists two varieties found in NC, one of which – var. littoralis – is limited to the Outer Banks and barrier islands plus near-coastel Pamlico and Craven counties. See Sorrie (2014) for a discussion. The nominate variety is the one found over most of the state.

Other Common Name(s)Sawbrier, Catbrier, Bullbrier, Chinabrier, Tramps’-trouble
State RankS5
Global RankG5
State Status
US Status
USACE-agcpFAC link
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Photo Gallery
B.A. Sorriesame data. DareBILPhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieShrubby stable dune near Frisco, May 2012. DareBILPhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieTanglewood County Park, floodplain forest near Yadkin River. Farinose lower stem. ForsythPhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieSame data. Note farinose lower stem--critical for positive ID.
B.A. SorriePiedmont, Deep River floodplain forest edge, May 2015. Leaves vary from rotund to pandurate and have thickened margin.
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