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Greenbrier is a vine with large rounded leaves and thorns along the stem (not visible in this photograph)

Greenbrier can interfere with a pleasant walk in the woods; it is a vine that can be up to twenty feet long and has very sharp thorns. It is pretty widely disliked; nearly all of the websites that I consulted to learn more about it focus on how to eradicate it. Its name, however, seems to evoke something pleasantly woodsy because everything from fancy resorts, to golf clubs, and homes for senior citizens is called Greenbrier. At the same time, gardeners have given it the nickname of nature’s barbed wire. When I have been pricked by it—which is fairly common—my first thought is to join the web page authors whose goal is to eradicate it. But it is a native plant that makes many contributions to wildlife, and for centuries it has been eaten by humans and used as a cure for various maladies. The best way for me to overcome the urge to kill it is to eat one of its new leaves. They have a bit of a tang that I like, and they also slake the thirst that I develop when I walk in the woods. Its tastiness keeps my garden shears at bay.

Eating a leaf or two while I hike is nice, but it doesn’t truly reflect the many ways that greenbrier has been a part of people’s diets. The leaves and the tendrils are sometimes used in salads, or they can be cooked and eaten. The berries can be eaten raw or cooked, the young shoots reputedly taste like asparagus when sautéed in butter, and the roots contain a natural gelling agent that can be used as a thickener for jellies.

Native Americans had many medicinal uses for greenbrier, and European colonists, particularly those who settled in the South, picked up that tradition. A tea made from the leaves alleviates joint pain and urinary infections. The Chinese have used a slightly different greenbrier species—one that is native to Asia—for a long list of cures. Scientific studies have found that greenbrier stems and leaves have anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering, and anti-stress compounds.

Wildlife also benefits from the presence of this prickly vine. Deer, bears, rabbits, beavers, and other small mammals eat all of its aboveground parts. The fruit is eaten by over forty species of birds. Pollinating bees and flies find nectar and pollen in the flowers. Several species of moth caterpillars eat the leaves. Greenbrier often grows in such dense clumps that it is an excellent place for birds and small mammals to flee to in order to elude raptors, coyotes, or foxes.

This is not my idea of what a shelter should look like.

The idea of finding shelter in a tangled mess of thorny vines prompted me to wonder if the thorns prick those small animals, and if so, does it hurt them? I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer to that question. Some scientists point out that the fur or feathers of these small animals protect them. Others believe that the animals are too agile to be pricked, or too light in weight for the thorns to penetrate. It has occurred to me that a puncture or two is not a big price to pay if you are fleeing for your life.

By Jim Amon.