Appalachia Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

Getting Scratched By Sawbriers

sawbriers in Appalachia

Have you ever gotten tangled up in a sawbrier? I have and let me tell you it hurts like the dickens.

I know there are scientific names like Brown Sawbriar or Woodland Sawbriar, but to me there are basically two kinds of briers: berry briers which are definitely worth fighting the serrated teeth for the sweetness they produce and sawbriers which as far as I can tell serve no purpose other than inflicting pain.

Sawbriers seem to grow over night by the feet. Sometimes they grow up up up till they can no longer support their weight of height and fall over.

Sawbriers are sneaky too.

I swear I can weed my garden one day and the next I’ll be walking through admiring my work when I’m grabbed by the sharp teeth of a two foot high sawbrier  and left wondering how in the world I missed seeing it the day before.

Most everybody has heard the story of Brer Rabbit. My family was also familiar with another story related to the aggravation of briers. We were taught the fault of sawbriers lay with Adam and Eve and should serve as an important reminder not to stray from the narrow way.

Maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands, but lately I’ve been thinking about sawbriers and how they could be used to symbolize the hardscrabble life that my Appalachian ancestors lived.

Just when the fields are ripe and full with summer’s harvest making you think you’re living in the land of milk and honey you can walk through the bounty and be scratched by a stubborn sawbrier as a reminder trouble may be waiting just around the corner.

The same reasoning could apply to our lives today and to the lives of folks all over the world. Appalachia does not hold the reins of heartache and sorrow alone.

Those same Appalachian ancestors who endured the sawbriers of life also knew how to pull them up or at least put them on a shelf at the back of their mind and enjoy life. Sitting a spell on the front porch to watch the evening fall; hearing a fiddle tune; or simply holding a grandbaby on your lap are all good things for taking those ornery sawbriers off your mind at the end of a long hard day.

Earlier this summer as we were weeding Pap’s garden one of the girls said she couldn’t pull up a sawbrier cause it hurt too bad. I showed her how if you reach all the way down to the bottom of the brier right where it goes into the ground you can sometimes grab a hold right there and pull without getting stuck.

The dogged determination to enjoy life to the fullest is one of the traits that’s seldom listed under the typical mumbo jumbo credited to native Appalachians, but I assure you it abounds from one end of Appalachia to the other. Pap taught us from an early age to step on the sawbriers you couldn’t pull up and to look for the sunshine up above.


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig and The Acorn in August of 2010


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  • Reply
    michael Davis
    October 9, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    My wife calls the sawbriers and I’ve always called them catbriers. Have you ever dug up the roots of a really big one. Could take you all day and man are they tough as coffin nails

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 29, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    I misspoke in my earlier comment. The sawbrars I know are shaped like strawberry or blackberry leaves but are glossy like the greenbrar. Greenbrars have more of a heart or shield shape. Sawbrar leaves are dark, almost purple with only a hint of green.

  • Reply
    June Jolley
    September 29, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    That’ll preach.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    The only good thing about a saw brair is the tast of the young shoots in early spring, deer lovem to.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 29, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    “Please Missus, don’t throw me in that briar patch!”
    Although I’m not fond of briars, brambles, sticker weeds, or saw briers….I do love the beautiful Fall color of saw briers climbing up the lonely brown Oaks in the woodlands…It’s like “lookee here, I’m decorating you for Fall”!
    Like “Br’er Rabbit” our rabbits can skedaddle into the blackberry briers and saw briers till all is clear just a laughin’ their cotton tails off! They sure love to hide in them…I’ve heard and seen a beagle and hound or three get their ears “sawed” and full of other stickers while chasing a rabbit into the briers and brambles!…only to ‘cry a yelp’, which is much different then their pursuit yelp and howl…so you know when they are backing out a brier caught a tender ear or nose! Ha
    Loved you post today…Some days go smooth as silk and other days get very prickly….However, sometimes a pinch or two will put ones life in perspective…

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    September 29, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Tipper, as soon as I saw the picture I remembered my first acquaintance with the sawbriar. When I saw it in the garden, though vigorous, it looked sort of skinny and delicate. I weed by hand so I reached down to give it a regular ‘pull’ and to my surprise it was rooted like cement to the ground. My hand slid up the plant getting pricked by every briar along the way and the stem didn’t move at all. After that, when I saw one, I left it to attack with the hoe later and even then sometimes I wasn’t successful. It is absolutely the best metaphor for a tenacious person, (like our ancestors) who settled here in the mountains. There is a lesson for us there.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    My dad always talked about grinning like a mule eating a saw briar and he would make this goofy chewing motion when he said it. It always made me laugh out loud, and it’s one of the things I miss about him now that he is gone. We have lots of them on our farm and they are vicious, especially when my husband is mowing. They grab on and won’t let go.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 29, 2017 at 11:18 am

    First of all I pronounce it brars. No i sound at all. Secondly, what you have pictured is not what I call a sawbrier. That is a greenbrier. It has a thicker green stem and tries to grow erect. The sawbrier I know is a small brown vine that runs long distances along the ground. It has leaves that look kinda like a strawberry or blackberry only not glossy. Its thorns are not as large as the greenbrier but it has many many more all around the stem and they don’t stop above the root. The roots have stickers too. The thorns are like little saw teeth and if drawn across bare skin will cut you like a saw. I have had cuts from them that went all the way around my legs.
    My sawbriers don’t have tendrils to grab on to other plants because they like to run around on the ground like little children do. They grow out into the grass and hide just waiting for a barelegged little boy to come scampering through then wrap themselves around his ankles. The more he struggles the more he gets entangled until he has to say “uncle” and yell for help to extract him. Ideally an adult with a pair of welding gloves and a pair of nippers is nearby to cut the vine into two inch pieces and discard them safely away from the child. A smart child will learn to avoid the area because sawbriers are known to seek revenge.
    I have these on my property and will try to remember to take a picture but you know how us old folks are. We remember there was something we needed to remember but can’t remember it until we try to remember something else. What was we talking about anyway?
    PS: The briers I described are not dewberries. I know them too.
    PPS: I started to say dikes instead of nippers but in a world of politically correct speech I thought better of it.

  • Reply
    Keith Jones
    September 29, 2017 at 11:14 am

    When pulling briars out of the garden, my aunt Avery, aunt Ethel, Miss Pearlie Spivey and other wise women would always have a short-handled hoe under one arm. If they couldn’t pull up the briar root, they’d dig down below ground level, hook the edge of the hoe under the main root, and pull it up with some leverage by turning the hoe blade up and pushing down the handle. Now don’t imagine one of those 6″ wide, 6″ high hoe blades…it would be rounded off from years of work, maybe 3 inches high by 4 wide with almost an oval shape. But they could chop more weeds and pull more briars with those little hoes than most others could do with a brand new hoe from Sears and Roebuck mailorder.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 10:58 am

    I must have missed this Post about 8 years ago, but I love the way you compare nature’s simple things with the World’s problems.
    When me and Harold went with Daddy posseum hunting, we went thru the field to get to the woods. We’d stop and look for things to eat and sometimes get tangled up in those blooming sawbriars. They hurt something awful, but when the fiests treed an ole posseum, we’d forget about the scratch. A lot of times the dogs would tree at the top of the cornfield where there was an Apple Orchard. They are all gone now after about 50 or 60 years. How I wish I could taste those old-timey Apples again! …Ken

  • Reply
    Rooney Floyd
    September 29, 2017 at 10:35 am

    Although we spelled briar with an “a” and called these aggravating vines “bramble briars”, I feel sure they are the same. I appreciate your using their annoyance to demonstrate such a valuable lesson and attitude toward life.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 29, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Sawbriers are a literal pain as you pointed out. We also know them as runningbriers due to their propensity to run along the ground and through weeds and bushes to ambush you when you are pulling weeds or cutting bushes.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 10:02 am

    Is this also called “smilax”?
    I like your version of the story of sawbriers – and that is an apt name for them; it just seems that those sawbriers catch folks even in the middle of the narrow way -but then that could be a metaphor for bad things happening to good people . . . . (There goes my brain again, taking off hither, thither, and yon!)
    In some article (cant remember where I read it) it was stated that they have a lot of starch in the roots and so are good survival food. Maybe all that starch is why they are so tough to get rid of (maybe impossible) and why they grow so fast!

  • Reply
    larry griffith
    September 29, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Did you ever hear grinin like a mule eating sawbriers?
    Some winters deer will eat sawbriers plum down to the ground.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Some of the bigger briers act like a razor blade and cut right through the clothes you are wearing. When I was a child, I ran around barefooted six months out of the year. The pain of stepping on a ‘brar’ with a naked foot is like being stabbed.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 29, 2017 at 9:21 am

    Working in the woods, sawbriers have ‘sawn’ me many a time. Just went with the territory. But even sawbriers turn a beautiful red or yellow in the fall and the berries are a pretty blue.
    I think you are on to something with sawbriers as a symbol (the buzz word now is ‘icon’) for the hardscrabble life. They are soft and tender at the young growing tips but hard as nails with maturity.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 8:49 am

    I have landed on my rump pulling sawbriars up weeding the garden. Growing up us kids called them stickers.

  • Reply
    September 29, 2017 at 8:49 am

    The only use I ever heard for them was to make a pipe from their root. Those briars will play havoc with lawn mower tires.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 29, 2017 at 8:13 am

    Sawbriers is just part of life, sometimes they come in the form of stickery plants growing in the ground, sometimes they come in the form of people. You know, people you run into who are all prickly. It’s just all part of life. We wouldn’t appreciate the nice berries or people if we didn’t have the prickly vines and people to compare them too!
    The real goal is not to BE one of the prickley ones!

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