By Steven Foster |
You know the plant. If you’ve ever walked in the woods in the Ozarks, you trip over it. It tears your clothing. It rips into your flesh as you unwittingly trudge along. When hiking or clearing brush at your yard’s edge, you talk to this plant—generally in loud expletives.
We call it catbrier, greenbrier, bullbrier—members of the genus Smilax in the greenbrier family (Smilacaceae). The genus Smilax has upwards of 350 species, mostly a tropical plant group with outliers extending into temperate climates. There are 20 species in North America (north of Mexico). I suspect 7 or 8 of them occur in Northwest Arkansas. I’ve never known a botanist who could give me a clear explanation of the differences between one catbrier and another. If you look at the books covering the flora of this part of the country, not one of them agree on scientific names, descriptions, illustrated characteristics or keys to identifiable features.
Some species of Smilax from Central and South America are familiar at least in name as the source of sarsaparilla. In the commercial trade this includes bulk materials called Mexican sarsaparilla, Honduras sarsaparilla, Jamaican sarsaparilla, and so forth. We will call those “Smilax officinalis” as a means of expressing the fact that nobody really seems to know what is the true source of sarsaparilla.
Sarsaparilla was first exported from South and Central America to Seville around 1550. Like sassafras it was touted as a “blood purifier”. Columbus introduced smallpox to the Americas, but in turn may have brought back a disease once known as “French pox”. Coincidentally, a disease not known to classical medical writers made it’s first appearance in the form of an epidemic in the year 1495—the same year Columbus returned from the Americas. The disease is called syphilis. In the 1500s and 1600s shiploads of sassafras bark and sarsaparilla roots were exported from the Americas to Europe, and made into a tonic blood purifier called root beer to treat syphilis, a gift from New World indigenous peoples to their European conquerors. Think about that continental karma the next time you trip over a catbrier.
Adapted from Nature of Eureka column in the 21 May 2014 issue of the Eureka Springs Independent Newsletter