Suspended Christmas

(Thanks to a cascade of medical conditions that began at the beginning of this month and has consumed much of my time, I’m still working my way through Christmas-oriented postings. Better late, as they say. [And yes, the back-truncation better late is in my files.])

The classic vehicle for carrying Christmas ornaments is the Christmas tree, an up-standing object. But suspended vehicles are also possible: hanging baskets, for instance, or this festive arrangement in Virginia Transue’s dining room that takes advantage of a chandelier:

(#1) Virginia’s 2018 smilax chandelier, with ornaments

(Virginia and her family appear on this blog every so often. She’s my sister-in-law — well, technically, my step-sister-in-law, since she’s my man Jacques’s brother’s widow, but that degree of technicality strikes me as just silly.)

Most of this posting will be taken up with the plant Virginia refers to as smilax here (“also called ironroot, a staple of the woods and copses of my agrarian childhood”, she says), which provides the handsome and durable greenery for her suspended Christmas.

Digression on other suspended Christmases. The hanging basket, as in this evergreen composition from Flowerland:


This kissing ball, on offer at Macy’s from the National Tree Company:

(#3) “The Crestwood Spruce Kissing Ball features branch tips mixed with bristle and is trimmed with red berries, pine cones and glitter. It is pre-strung with 35 battery-operated warm white LED lights that are energy-efficient and long lasting. 6 hours ON/18 hours OFF timed operation. Hang this holiday decoration in indoor or covered outdoor locations.

And then there’s the suspended Christmas we had for some years in the Columbus OH house: ornamental fishnets (in bright colors) stretched out just under the ceiling (and anchored at various points), with Christmas ornaments hanging down from them. The effect was that you were inside a Christmas tree.  Wonderful.

(I was hoping that somewhere in the boxes full of photographs there would be at least a few showing the nets, but apparently not. I’ve never been any good at taking photographs, so I long ago gave up trying; Jacques took a great many, but pretty much confined himself to shots of people and plants.)

A red herring. Well, there’s smilax and then there’s smilax. From NOAD:

noun smilax: 1 a widely distributed climbing shrub with hooks and tendrils. Several South American species yield sarsaparilla from their roots, and some are cultivated as ornamentals. Genus Smilax, family Liliaceae [the genus is now treated as belonging to a separate family, the Smilacaceae; see below]. [This is the smilax I’m talking about.] 2 a climbing asparagus, the decorative foliage of which is used by florists [sometimes called florist’s smilax]. Asparagus (or Myrsiphyllumasparagoides, family Liliaceae [the genus is now treated as a belonging to a separate family, the Asparagaceae]. ORIGIN late 16th century: via Latin from Greek, literally ‘bindweed’.

(#4) Asparagus asparagoides

Called smilax because its leaves resemble those of Smilax species. More detail from Wikipedia:

Asparagus asparagoides, commonly known as bridal creeper, bridal-veil creeper, gnarboola, smilax or smilax asparagus, is a herbaceous climbing plant of the family Asparagaceae native to eastern and southern Africa. Sometimes grown as an ornamental plant, it has become a serious environmental weed in Australia and New Zealand.

… Asparagus asparagoides, often under the name smilax, is commonly used in floral arrangements or home decorating.

Virginia’s smilax. Mail from her on 12/23/18:

It grows from a tuber [Here Virginia supplied a photo of a wheebarrowful she dug up (very hard work indeed):]


and will live FOREVER, slowly strangling trees and shrubbery it embraces. It comes out of the ground a woody stalk,  that from an old tuber can be up to 1/2 an inch in diameter. It WANTS to go straight up, ‘laddering’ up on a privet or other bush, and keeps climbing. Its goal is to get way up high in a tree. It goes for hardwoods. The top ends of it are like heavy threads, so winds blow it. Aggressive and effective tendrils enable it to catch onto a limb on its selected hardwood, and then up it goes. Once secure up there, it adds more and more ‘limbs’ of those glossy leaves, and you get a pretty cluster. The gatherer has as  much work to get it down as IT put out out to get UP THERE. The tendrils have thickened and have locked it on. One just climbs the tree if at all possible. But its brilliance is in the malleability of the vine itself. It just … drapes,  achieving those lovely lines all by itself. It will look like you hired the fanciest florist in town and paid him a fortune to do up your house. When all you did was lay a vine over a mirror or doorway. I grew up with Christmases decorated with this, and loved it from day 1. All of this is from my yard. So, for me the vine is sort of magical as well as beautiful.
However, turn your back on it and you will eventually have a woven mat, an impenetrable snarl.

I immediately identified the plant as catbrier, a (minor-league) pest vine familiar to me in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but Virginia assured me that her ironroot was somethng different, and that there were lots of different kinds of smilax vines, with different folk names, often hard to distinguish. True, all true.

On the genus Smilax, from Wikipedia:

Smilax is a genus of about 300–350 species, found in the tropics and subtropics worldwide. In China for example about 80 are found (39 of which are endemic), while there are 20 in North America north of Mexico. They are climbing flowering plants, many of which are woody and/or thorny, in the monocotyledon family Smilacaceae, native throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Common names include catbriers, greenbriers, prickly-ivys and smilaxes.

… Greenbriers get their scientific name from the Greek myth of Crocus and the nymph Smilax. Though this myth has numerous forms, it always centers around the unfulfilled and tragic love of a mortal man who is turned into a flower, and a woodland nymph who is transformed into a brambly vine.

… On their own, Smilax plants will grow as shrubs, forming dense impenetrable thickets. They will also grow over trees and other plants up to 10 m high, their hooked thorns allowing them to hang onto and scramble over branches.

… The common floral decoration smilax is Asparagus asparagoides.

Note on the family, from Wikipedia:

Smilacaceae, the greenbrier family, is a family of flowering plants. Up to some decades ago the genera now included in family Smilacaceae were often assigned to a more broadly defined family Liliaceae, but for the past twenty to thirty years most botanists have accepted Smilacaceae as a distinct family [now #91 in my running index of plant families]. It is considered that the two families diverged around 55 millions years ago during the Early Paleogene possibly near the boundary between Paleocene and Eocene.

Back to the genus, and notable species within it. From the Southern Living site on Smilax spp.:

Native to the Americas, this is a large group of tough, moderately fast-growing, evergreen to deciduous vines that grow from rhizomes or large tubers. Some species are valuable ornamentals, others flat-out weeds; some are viciously thorny, others nearly thornless. All climb by tendrils. Greenish or yellowish flowers in spring or early summer are small and insignificant, but the berries that follow are often showy and are relished by birds. Because many species look similar, this is a difficult group to sort out; the common names can be as tangled as the vines.

Saw Greenbrier, Catbrier, Bullbrier:  Smilax bona-nox

Cat Greenbrier, Sawbrier: Smilax glauca

Dwarf Smilax, Wild Sarsaparilla: Smilax pumila

Common Greenbrier, Horse Brier: Smilax rotundifolia (grows from a huge tuber)

Jackson Vine, Lanceleaf Greenbrier [or Southern Smilax]: Smilax smallii (enormous tubers). The most important ornamental species, this old favorite, named for Stonewall Jackson, is prized for its glossy, deep green foliage; leaves and stems are popular for holiday decorations, as they retain their color long after cutting.

Coral Greenbrier: Smilax walteri

The catbrier of my PA/OH days was pretty clearly S. rotundifolia. From Wikipedia:


Smilax rotundifolia, known as roundleaf greenbrier and common greenbrier, is a woody vine [deciduous or semi-evergreen] native to the eastern and south-central United States and to eastern Canada. It is a common and conspicuous part of the natural forest ecosystems in much of its native range. The leaves are glossy green, petioled, alternate, and circular to heart-shaped. They are generally 5–13 cm long. Common greenbrier climbs other plants using green tendrils growing out of the petioles.

The stems are round and green and have sharp spines. The flowers are greenish, and are produced from April to August. The fruit is a bluish black berry that ripens in September.

… The woody vine can grow up to 20 feet long and climb various objects and vegetation around it using tendrils. If there is nothing for it to cling onto it will grow across the ground. It has woody stems that are pale green in color and glabrous with four sides …. Along the stem there are prickles that are about 1/3-inch-long.

The roots are big knobby rhizomes that are very hard to pull put of the ground. They easily regenerate new vines when the vines are cut, destroyed by fire, or treated with weed killers.

Note: S. rotundifolia has a fairly wide geographical range. It’s generally deciduous, and it’s prickly as hell.

Now, S. smallii, the smilax of the South:

(#6) A mass of S. Smalli foliage hanging from a tree, a host for this native vine

Its distribution: the coastal plain from southern VA to FL, west to eastern TX. It’s evergreen. And everyone describes it as thornless.

My tentative conclusion from this is that what Virginia has is a hybrid of rotundifolia and smallii, mostly smallii: the glossy leaves, rampant growth habit, and big roots of both species — but evergreen, darker-leaved, and over-the-top invasive like smallii, with the vicious thorns of rotundifolia. Yikes. But very pretty in holiday decorations.

One Response to “Suspended Christmas”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    A vine that the images and descriptions clearly indicate is Smilax rotundifolia is an ongoing plague on our Gloucester property, but we have always called it catbriar, in part because that’s what our wildflower guide calls it (as an alternative to greenbriar), and in part because it delivers the same kind of scratches as one might get from a cat’s claws (I assume that’s where the name comes from). We haven’t attempted to dig up the tubers; we just cut and cut again.

    I also call it “nature’s barbed wire”.

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