Using Plant Identification to Discover Smooth Carrion Flower

Reader Contribution by Kathy Shaw
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Photo by Fritz Flohr Reynolds

Although I consider my husband and myself vegetable gardeners primarily, Pat and I are plant geeks that need to know the names of all flowers we encounter at home or when traveling. We have a backpack full of identification books that we keep handy, but our first choice for plants in the wild for our location is the Peterson Field Guide for Wildflowers: Northeastern/North-central North America.

Our copy is well thumbed and over 20 years old. We like that it includes both native and alien (think weed) varieties and is arranged by flower color, making it easier to go through the pages of mostly black-and-white sketches to narrow down the search. We can then refer to the descriptions to verify the details like leaf shape, growth habits, and flowering time. After we have a pretty good idea that we’ve identified the flower, we will search the internet using the Latin name of the plant to find additional pictures and further details from various sources.

Identifying a Vining Mystery Plant

The past couple of summers, we have watched a single-stalked vine grow to 5 feet along our driveway. It had tendrils like a pea but didn’t actually cling to anything. Unfortunately, it was always nipped by deer or broken before it flowered.

This year, a vine came up in another part of the property that we had recently “released” by cutting down the invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs that were infesting it. Along with native plants, from jack-in-the-pulpits to lead plant, we were able to observe this vine flowering for the first time. The flowers are in the leaf axils and look like round broccoli florets and actually have small yellow flowers like broccoli, too.

Photo by Kathy Shaw

Discovering Smooth Carrion Flower

Upon looking at the “Green” section of the Petersons Guide, we found a likely candidate on the page showing “6-Part Flowers; Lengthwise Leaf Veins – Lily Family (Liliaceae)”. We discovered it is a Smooth Carrion Flower. The Latin name is Smilax herbacea and the common name refers to the smell of the flower. Now we know why flies were hanging around it!

Peterson’s went on to say that it is common throughout most of the Northeast and North-central part of the county. However, in confirming the variety on the internet, it seems that it actually grows as far south as Alabama and Georgia and that Wisconsin is at the western edge of its range.

By a weird coincidence, within a day or so of looking up this new plant, I read about a similar variety in Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Herb. More common Smilax varieties are barbed and called Catbriers or Greenbriers and the species is edible. I had to run out and nibble it right away to discover that it does have a pleasant taste similar to asparagus. We’d have to have quite a few more plants before we could actually prepare it as a side dish, though.

Creating Herbarium Cards

It’s so cool for us to find a new plant growing on our property. I am in the beginning stages of compiling a list of plants we’ve found and hope to put together herbarium cards and include text on when each one first flowers annually as a nod to Aldo Leopold. Perhaps we will even spot a trend in years to come due to climate change.

More on the herbarium cards on a future post — now it’s back to the vegetable garden to rub out Colorado Potato Beetle larva.

Kathy Shawhas gardened for more than 30 years, including as a test gardener for Organic Gardening magazine. She and her husband, Pat, are Master Gardeners and owners of Kathy’s Island Botanicals, where they make and sell natural bath products. They live in an earth-sheltered home on 35 acres in central Wisconsin. Read all of Kathy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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