Although I chosen to use the cluster of greenbrier berries as tonight’s feature image I wasn’t really able to find a wide variety of references to the food value of the berries themselves. Greenbriers produce edible roots, shoots and leaves and while the berries may not be poison they do contain a large seed and I’m not sure what th e flavor of the berry might be like.
I have never taken the time to sit down and watch the old movie “Calamity Jane” but I understand that’s where the quote “Make mine a sarsaparilla” came from. In the 1800s Charles Elmer Hires made his mark on American culture with Root Beer which was often referred to as “sarsaparilla” but actually didn’t contain any of the plant that gives real sarsaparilla it’s flavor. Instead he used a mixture of birch oil and Sassafras to create his brew. It was a huge success until 1960 when the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of Safrole. (The substance that gives Sassafras it’s flavor and is also found in black pepper as well as nutmeg.) However, in other countries the true Sarsaparilla plant which has been used since the 16th century continued to be the soft drink of choice. That plant is one of about 300 species of greenbrier. And that brings me to tonight’s post.
As I researched the article I learned that greenbrier based soft drinks widely available and very popular in other countries. So much so that I’m a little surprised that Americans haven’t been growing smilax ( The greenbrier genus) commercially ourselves.
In the Spring, the soft new growth of the vine is free of thorns. To harvest the new shoots simply locate the uppermost thorn and begin flexing the stem while slowly working your way to the top. When you reach the point where the woody fibers end the tip will naturally break off in your hand. The shoot is tender enough to eat raw right there on the spot. It’s flavorful too. I have enjoyed this myself and it tastes a little like asparagus. It’s also fun to joke with those who don’t forage about being tough enough to chew on briers. I’ve not tried them steamed or boiled but they’re said to be excellent when cooked and buttered.
Next is the leaves. Young leaves like the stem are tender enough to eat raw and go great in a “wild child” salad. They can also be cooked like spinach and served as a pot herb.
But the real harvest is the root crop. Smilax roots are fibrous and those fibers need to come out. It’s a little bit of a process but once you dig up the root it should be peeled like a potato and crushed under water. Allow the starch to settle out in the bottom of the container and gently pour off the water with the floating fibers. The starch on the bottom can be used like flour and can be used immediately or dried and saved for later. This powder is kinda special among starches. By adding a tablespoon of the dry red powder to each cup boiling water you can make a nice jelly. Or by diluting it and chilling it you get the aforementioned soft drinks ( minus the carbonation). I’m guessing that either product will require sweetening. The starch can also be added to soups and stews as a thickening agent.
I have not been able to confirm that greenbrier root contains the Safrole like nutmeg, back pepper and the banned sassafras but if not then it just a wild forage plant but a potential commercial crop for niche markets.
The most popular type of Sarsaparilla is the Jamaican variety but the best variety in North America is the Bull Brier. From my experience it has the fewest thorns and the best flavor.
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