A path through the woods is a compromise between people and the natural world. As long as you stay on the trail you are alright. But if you dare to venture into the brush you will certainly come upon what will be the bane of your off-trail existence: cat briar or green briar or bull thorn (Smilax rotundifolia).
It is an unlovely plant of the understory (or over-story, because with the help of other shrubs and trees it can grow up up up.) There is some beauty in its cluster of blue-purple berries, but the dominant feature is its thorns: they will tear flesh or cloth and ruin your experience.
Take a close look at the stem of a briar- if you dare- and you will see a formidable array of stout thorns, pointing outward in every direction. They are sharp and they are strong. You could not design a better defense system. My plant physiology book tells me that they are modifications of the stem. Tendrils represent another stem modification: they wind their way around whatever is near and help the plant climb up and over anything in the way. These tendrils are also very strong: I tried to break one off with my bare hands for closer examination and literally could not do so. This is why I found a dense clump of briar so strong that it formed a springy platform for a catbird’s nest. Thorns and tendrils make for a brute of a plant.
If we were to speak of the purpose the briars serve, we could talk about how they (along with poison ivy and ticks) keep people out of delicate areas, so I suppose we could call them the protectors of the woodlands. (Animals, by the way, seem to be not deterred by them- they charge right through).
But we will not speak of purpose here. Plants and animals do not serve purposes in the human sense of the word, other than being part of the food chain, to produce, to eat and be eaten. Any organism appearing anywhere should be seen as that area’s expression: it belongs there. (That’s why most attempts to dig up a plant found in the wild for your garden are doomed to fail.) In other words there are as many different plants and animals in the world as there are ways to be a plant or animal in the world. That is, there are that many niches. The catbriar occupies the niche of being a ferocious thorny plant that uses tough fibrous tendrils to grow upon its neighbors.
If we are to celebrate and preserve the natural world we must not simply focus on the beautiful and charismatic megafauna and flora, but also on the minute, the ungainly, the inconvenient, the sometimes hostile and dangerous things that share this planet with us. Let’s save the whales, certainly, let’s adore the pandas, but let’s also give the catbriar the respect, if not love, it is due.
Just don’t hug it.