Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Wait-a-Minute Vine


If you're going to contend with briers, cover as much of yourself as possible with the protection of canvas and leather. My advice pertains to casual walking as well as to contests of land control.

I've encountered briers at significant stages of my adult life. Down in Georgia when we got tangled up during night patrols in Ranger School we heard it was called the 'wait-a-minute vine.' We didn't always refer to it with the congenial irony of the backwoods folks.
At the beginning of my landscape career I matched wits with briers in our conflicting claims to a nine-acre woodland garden on Folly Point, adjacent to Halibut Point. I was taking courses at the Arnold Arboretum at the time in the heady world of botanical taxonomy where this brier was placed among the liliacea, the lily family! That set off a curiosity in my mind that I hope to satisfy more fully in the course of this essay.

Smilax rotundifolia, green brier
A good part of taxonomy is based on flower characteristics, which frankly had never occurred to me in the case of briers. So I went looking for them this past June. They were sweetly suspended among the thorns, somewhat resembling lilies-of-the-valley, not so different in appearance from the more probably liliacea flowers of Solomon's seal....


What sorts of tricks of Nature endowed this lily relative with the ability to climb and draw blood? Entertaining a question like that is enough to bring into consideration some of the thoughts worth thinking about in life. Altogether it has been a Job-like focus for me professionally as well as existentially.
Fire alone doesn't permanently win battles with the brier. The ambitious roots replace any stems cut, chewed or burned. From subterranean armored hubs they send out acquisitive runners in all directions. They envision an impenetrable colony crowning all the world's trees, shrubs and boulders, anything that stands still overnight. Their clever instinct for dominion is, first, to close all paths and trails to evict troublesome humans.

Fruits form another dimension of the brier's expansion plan that enlists birds in seed dispersal. Flowers and bees meet as partners in a seduction that leads to pollination, species vigor, and territorial extension. 
Recently, in a lapse of judgment, I meandered unarmed through thickets at Halibut Point where briers were boss. The sun was setting. Forward progress was becoming more and more painful. Retreat was, well, retreat. It was an uneasy moment. I'm pleased to say that I eventually emerged exhausted and perhaps wiser.

Most people I know call it 'cat brier' rather than the book name 'green brier.' That probably refers to its claws - or to a feline temperament to toy with victims. Green brier is too innocuous a term.
Last fall I witnessed a caterpillar getting the best of a cat brier leaf. The vine was in a weakened state at the end of its valiant season. The shorter days and lower angle of the sun had reduced its energy. As it prepared for seasonal rest it conceded the leaf to the grander cycle.

The sun settled lower in the sky. Nearly horizontal rays backlit the leaves along the shoreline. I thought, wait a minute, perhaps there's room for both of us.

3 comments:

  1. Growing up on Cape Cod I had to contend with this briar everywhere! We always called it "bull brier."

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  2. "What sorts of tricks of Nature endowed this lily relative with the ability to climb and draw blood? Entertaining a question like that is enough to bring into consideration some of the thoughts worth thinking about in life."

    Agreed. Let's ponder together soon.

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  3. Beautiful photos! I'm giving a talk on greenbriar and was wondering if I could use one of your photos (with credit) in it?
    thanks!

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