Native Plant Spotlight: Carrion-flower

Written by Jeff Veglahn
    Tuesday, 11 June 2013
Native Plant Spotlight: Carrion-flower

In this native plant highlight, we are going to look at the carrion-flower (Smilax herbacea), a member of the Smilacaceae family. Plants in this family are shrubs, herbs, or vines and usually perennial. The Smilacaceae family is found in tropical to sub-tropical environments, so you can think of the Carrion-flower as a piece of paradise in Southeast Wisconsin!


The carrion-flower is a non-woody climbing vine that can grow up to eight feet long. The leaves are alternate and typically 3.5" long and 2.5" wide. They can either be ovate-oval to broadly ovate-lanceolate in shape. At the base of each leaf petiole, there is usually a pair of tendrils that help the vine cling to plants or other objects for support. You can find carrion-flower blooming May to June with small (1/4" across) greenish-white flowers. carrion-flower is dioecious, meaning each vine is either male or female; so for the carrion-flower to produce seed, a male and female plant needs to be near one another.

The common name "carrion" comes from the scent of the flowers, which smell like decaying flesh. This sometimes not-so-pleasant scent attracts various types of flies, bees and other insects to pollinate the flowers.


The carrion-flower can be few and far-between in Wisconsin, but if you look for this plant, you are likely to find it in full sun or partial shade habitats with moist soil. These habitats include: savannas, woodland openings and woodland boarders.

Wildlife Value

The flowers of carrion-flower are primarily pollinated by a variety of small bees, flies, and beetles. While the flies and beetles suck nectar or feed on the pollen, the bees will suck nectar or collect pollen. The berries (similar to the size and look of blueberries) of Smilax spp. are typically eaten by game birds and songbirds. Ruffed grouse and wild turkey will also eat newly sprouted leaves and the buds of the vines. The berries are also a food source for some mammals including black bear, opossum, raccoon, and other species.

Carrion flower

Ethnobotanical value

In earlier times, carrion-flower had many edible and medicinal purposes. Consumed either by using the leaves in tea or eating small amounts of the root, it was believed to help indigestion, muscle pain, and respiration issues

Landscaping Ideas

This growing season, if you are going to landscape your yard, consider using plants that are native to your area! Carrion-flower, along with other vines, is a great addition to any yard where the conditions are right. It can soften the side of your house or fence, without growing out of control. Natives are also lower maintenance; they don't need to be watered as much as non-natives, once they become established. You will also find a wide variety of new butterflies, birds, and other wildlife enjoying what you enjoy!

Photo credit: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/savanna/plants/sm_carrion.htm; http://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/species/smilax/herbacea/
Jeff Veglahn

Jeff Veglahn

Jeff was born and raised in La Crosse, Wis. enjoying what the Mississippi River and wetlands had to offer. He received a B.S. in Ecology from Winona State University in Winona, Minn. After graduating in 2009, he and his wife moved here to Milwaukee. Jeff was hired here at the Urban Ecology Center as the Seasonal Land Steward at Riverside Park in 2011. In January of 2013, he started as the permanent Land Steward for the Menomonee Valley branch. His favorite activities include cooking (eating), fishing, and exploring personal faith based disciplines.


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