8 June 2009

Smilax australis family Smilacaceae

(commonly called Lawyer Vine, Barbed Wire Vine or Austral Sarsaparilla)
has an interesting article on Smilax in general. In Australia we have three Australian species of Smilax and five of Ripogonum and on the Central Coast of New South Wales we have two of each species.

If something long, thin and vine-like clutches at your clothes, arms or legs on a bush walk and won’t easily release you, chances are Smilax australis has grabbed your attention. It is a very common, tough, wiry climber that scrambles through dry rain forests and nearby shady gullies in the Australian bush; growing in all states in a wide variety of habitats. It has long tough stems, up to 8m or so, and the whole length of stem is covered in small, very sharp, prickles.

Those sharp thorns, with the aid of paired tendrils growing from the leaf nodes, enables S. australis to thread through bushes and scramble over shrubs and trees, sometimes making impenetrable thickets in the bush.

Thicket in flower

The leaves are simple, alternate, tough and leathery; broader at the base than the tip with a short tapering point, which can sometimes be shallowly notched, particularly when young. They are green on both surfaces with five prominent veins running the length of the leaf, and smaller veins radiating from those. Tiny superficial veins cover the surface of older leaves. They are somewhere between 5 and 10 cm long. The base of the leaves houses a pair of coiled tendrils which also aids in the climbing and clinging process.

New leaves are a lovely soft pink when they first appear, aging to a pretty soft green and maturing to a leathery dark green.

The plants are dioecious and so have male and female flowers on different plants. The plants are not self fertile and before fruit can set both male and female plants must be present. I have observed flowering occurring only in spring, with flowering lasting for just a few weeks, but other references describe it as occurring at any time of the year. The flowers are greenish white to cream, individually quite small and borne in umbels about 5 cm across, downward hanging on fine stalks. Each flower is broadly tubular with 6 spreading pointed reflexed lobes and in male flowers 6 long protruding stamens. Perfume is not noticeable to the human nose.

Staminate (male) flowers

Staminate (male) flowers

Female flowers lack the six protruding stamens but instead have an ovary awaiting fertilization before fruit can develop.

Pistillate (female) flowers

Pistillate (female) flowers

If the female flowers are fertilized a cluster of round green berries 5-8 mm across develops,

These ripen black and contain 1 or 2 seeds which are eaten by native birds, such as Satin bower bird and the Green cat bird, and then excreted and spread around the bush to grow new plants.

Butterflies are attracted to the flowers.

There is a very similar plant called Smilax glyciphylla which is not as robust, has narrower leaves, only three longitudinal veins and no prickles. Sometimes they occur in the same area, even growing together. The whole plant is much smaller; smaller leaves, smaller flowers and it is said to have sweet tasting berries and leaves which can be eaten when young and tender.

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