This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Carrion-scented,yellowish-green, 15 to 80 small, 6-parted ones clustered in an umbel on a long peduncle. Stem: Smooth, unarmed, climbing with the help of tendril-like appendages from the base of leafstalks. Leaves: Egg-shaped, heart-shaped, or rounded, pointed tipped, parallel-nerved, petioled. Fruit: Bluish-blackberries.
Preferred Habitat - Moist soil, thickets, woods, roadside fences.
Flowering Season - April - June.
Distribution - Northern Canada to the Gulf States, westward to Nebraska.
"It would be safe to say," says John Burroughs, " that there is a species of smilax with an unsavory name, that the bee does not visit, herbacea. The production of this plant is a curious freak of nature. ... It would be a cruel joke to offer it to any person not acquainted with it, to smell. It is like the vent of a charnel-house." (Thoreau compared its odor to that of a dead rat in a wall!) "It is first cousin to the trilliums, among the prettiest of our native wild flowers," continues Burroughs, "and the same bad blood crops out in the purple trillium or birthroot."
Strange that so close an observer as Burroughs or Thoreau should not have credited the carrion-flower with being something more intelligent than a mere repellent freak! Like the purple trillium (p. 7), it has deliberately adapted itself to please its benefactors, the little green flesh flies so commonly seen about untidy butcher shops in summer. These, sharing with many beetles the unthankful task of removing putrid flesh and fowl from the earth, acting the part of scavengers for nature, are naturally attracted to carrion-scented flowers. Of these they have an ungrudged monopoly. But the purple trillium has an additional advantage in both smelling and looking like the same thing - a piece of raw meat past its prime. Bees and butterflies, with their highly developed aesthetic sense, ever delighting in beautiful colors, perfume, and nectar, naturally let such flowers as these alone - another object aimed at by them, for then the flies get all the pollen they can eat. Some they transfer, of course, from the larger staminate flowers to the smaller pistillate ones as they crawl over one umbel of the carrion-flower, then alight on another.
Presently fruit begins to set, and we can approach the luxuriant vine without offence to our noses. The beautiful glossy green foliage takes on resplendent tints in early autumn - again with interested motives, for are there not seeds within the little bluish-black berries, waiting for the birds to distribute them during their migration?
The vicious Catbrier, Greenbrier, or Horsebrier (S. rotundi-folia), similar to the preceding, except that its four-angled stem is well armed with green prickles, its beautiful glossy, decorative leaves are more rounded, and its greenish flower umbels lack foul odor, scarcely needs description. Who has not encountered it in the roadside and woodland thickets, where it defiantly bars the way?
In the most inaccessible part of such a briery tangle, that rollicking polyglot, the yellow-breasted chat, loves to hide its nest. Indeed, many birds can say with Brer Rabbit that they were "bred en bawn in a brier-patch." Throughout the eastern half of the United States and Upper Canada the catbrier displays its insignificant little blossoms from April to June for a miscellaneous lot of flies - insects which are content with the slightest floral attractions offered. The florist's staple vine popularly known as "Smilax " (Myrsiphyllum asparagoides), a native of the Cape of Good Hope, is not even remotely connected with true Smilaceae.