Catbrier root, Smilax root
Greenbrier plants are large, tangled shrubs which grown into dense impenetrable thickets unless kept carefully governed by a diligent gardener. They will also grow up the trunks of other trees to impressive height, employing their hooked thorns to hang onto and scramble over branches. The leaves are heart-shaped, and bloom in the early summer with clusters of small green-white flowers, which later develop into berries which are rubbery in texture and bear large, spherical seeds. The herbally useful portion of the plant is the arrow-shaped main trunk root, which in a mature plant can be three to four inches long, with its many thin, stringy subordinate roots, which are not medicinally active, extending haphazardly in all directions.
Many varieties of greenbrier are native all throughout the tropical and warm temperate regions of the world, though all are substantially similar in appearance and medicinal function. They grow best in moist woodlands with slightly alkaline soil. It is an amazingly damage-tolerant plant, springing back remarkably well from being potted or transplanted, gladly accepting a gardener’s pruning shears, and capable of fully growing back just from its rhizomes even after its above-ground structure is completely cut away or burned down by fire.
It can be rather tricky to harvest greenbrier root in the wild, given the imposing thorny thickets which untended specimens easily form. One may have to navigate several feet into such growth to reach the center of the plant, an uncomfortable experience to avoid if at all possible. Domesticated greenbrier, kept carefully pruned and cultivated, will not pose this complication. The roots will retain medicinal quality if they are not allowed to dry out; sealing them in an airtight container, filled to capacity to displace as much dry air as possible, will preserve them for several weeks.
The anti-inflammatory properties of greenbrier root are commonly put to use in the topical skin ointment commonly known as “bottom balm.” And yes, while it is effective against an infant’s diaper rash, it is not limited to that use: skin which is inflamed due to disease or insect bite can be soothed by such treatment as well, and the present author quite prefers to refer to it with the rather more dignified appellation of greenbrier balm. The ointment is obtained by thoroughly puncturing the skin of the root and then steaming it over distilled water. The medicinal essence of the root will release into the water, which can be boiled down to a concentrate and blended into thickened mineral oil. Many preparations advise using butter instead of mineral oil, but this adds nothing to the treatment’s effectiveness, and attracts infection and insects when the butter inevitably goes rancid.
Greenbrier is quite an important plant, with a wide variety of uses and purposes outside of the herbalistic. Ecologically, it is a crucial component of a forest ecosystem: its berries stay intact through winters, when birds and other animals eat them to survive, and its thorny thickets offer welcome shelter to small birds, squirrels, rabbits, and so forth, who can effectively hide from larger predators within the prickly tangles. In the culinary arts, extract of greenbrier root is used to make sarsaparilla and other root beers, and the roots themselves may be used in soups or stews, appearing to the tongue much as a gritty but very sweet carrot. The plant’s berries and young shoots are edible and nutritious, either raw or cooked, and the spring flowers are rich in nectar and often used by beekeepers as honey plants.