sawbriers in Appalachia
Ever got tangled up in a sawbrier? I have. I know there are scientific names like Brown Sawbriar or Woodland Sawbriar-but to me there are basically 2 kinds of briers-berry briers which are definitely worth fighting the serrated teeth for the bounty 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 2ft high sawbrier wondering how I missed seeing it the day before.

Most everybody has heard the story of Brer Rabbit. We were also familiar with another story related to the aggravation of briers and the scratches they leave on your body. 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 you can walk through 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 tune or a song; or holding a grandbaby on their lap are all good choices for taking those ornery sawbriers off your mind at the end of a long 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.


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  • Reply
    September 15, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    I was walking thru the woods with a smart friend when she spotted a greenbriar that looked like it had been cut with scissors about knee high. Rabbits, she said, eat them and that’s what they look like. Native Americans ate the root. So, this scratchy plant has a useful side.

  • Reply
    Wayne Newton
    August 10, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Tipper, we called them Bamboo vines or Cat briers down in Wiregrass country.
    Impossible to get rid of them. And they left scars that I still see today.When we had to drive our cows out of the swamps, wild grapes and bamboo vines just about stymied us.
    They thrive in just about any soil type, or ground cover, and they do climb to the top of many small trees.
    Control burning doesn’t slow them down; they’re the first plant to sprout after the burn.
    I’ ve never known of a successful eradication plan. We just learned to co-exist.

  • Reply
    August 13, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I don’t know about sawbriars, but there is this weed that grows in our garden that have these sharp briers on them.. .and boy are they sharp!

  • Reply
    Farm Chick Paula
    August 11, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Wonderful post, Tipper- very interesting thought. And yes, they do seem to pop up overnight! (*UGH* and hard to get rid of!)

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    August 10, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Well, guess I got here too late to comment on the sawbrairs….
    I did love the analogy of the sawbrair and stamina of the Applachian family…..
    But…did you ever wonder why the lowly sawbriar had such a defense mechanism…have we even found out thru science yet?
    The LEAVES are beautiful in the fall turning orange and red climbing up the trees…but be careful picking up a log where the ‘brair hasn’t been axed off..OUCH!
    The BERRIES stay on the brair and the birds and animals survive on them in late fall and winter…then of course pass the undigested seeds all over the woods to make more sawbrairs..WONDER WHY?
    The FLOWERS are not spectactular..(but the butterflies think so and the woodland butterflies are fond of them and the catapillers the green leaves.)
    The SAWING EFFECT of the stems is horrible if you get a leg or arm caught in it…my cat and dog have more than once cried for help while trying to lossen themselves from a brair after a walk in the field next to the woods…
    I understand that the roots can grow down to two or three feet, the sawing effect of the stems, black or red berries, and brillant fall foliage…there must be some reason for the stamina of this plant to protect itself…
    We just have to live with it..I think Pappy is right just step on it and keep on keeping on, face to the sun…

  • Reply
    August 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    I don’t think we have those here in NE Arkansas. We do have sandburs, cockleburs, and careless weeds. All can inflict pain.

  • Reply
    August 10, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Wonderful analogy, Tipper. I have never heard of or seen a sawbriar. Once again, I have learned something from you…LOVE IT!

  • Reply
    August 10, 2010 at 11:16 am

    So true, Tipper!
    I love the analogy.
    We have them down here, too. Maybe that is one thing that is common to us all over the country.
    Now if we all could step on them and keep looking up, we will all fair better in life.
    By the way, tell the girls I love their song, I am a Pilgrim! Meant to tell you that the other day and forgot by the time I got to the end of reading the post.

  • Reply
    August 10, 2010 at 9:45 am

    So good to be back for a visit. This year has flown by and lots of things are happening. I’ve been gone a lot and not commenting as much as I used too. I’ve had to grow new skin on many occasions because of a variety of briers, including “saw briers”. Nothing like being lost in the woods at night and running into a thicket in the dark. The visit was a refreshing treat. I always love the music. Send our best regards to the family. Pappy

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 9, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Tipper–Given my technological ineptitude, which you know quite well, I just now realized I could share my thoughts on sawbriars (and other things) not only with you but with your fans. As I noted in an e-mail earlier today, I appreciated the analogy comparing the persistence of the sawbriar (I spell it with an “a” because mountain folks always pronounce it that way) with that of folks in the high country eking out a living.
    That being said, and presently being adorned with sawbriar scratches to the extent it looks like I’ve been in a losing battle with a wildcat, let me offer two apologias for this plant which might almost be described as an invention of the Devil.
    First, the tender shoots of the plant are edible.
    Second, and of considerably more significance from my perspective, a mature or nearly mature leaf of smilax (the “proper” name for the plant) makes a at turkey call. In the hands of a master, who holds it stretched tight between the thumb and index fingers of his hands, it will produce Jezebel-like clucks, purrs, and yelps. Just the ticket to lure an old gobbler within gun range, and the price is certainly right.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    August 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    never have heard of a sawbrier but i love Pap’s saying!

  • Reply
    Nancy Simpson
    August 9, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Yes! Now that I have a name for that stuff, I am going to war against sawbriers.

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    August 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Tipper: It seems like there are so many things that can grab onto you in the woods. I always thought the brier patch was all blackberries. It sounds way more inviting to me.

  • Reply
    August 9, 2010 at 11:21 am

    One word best describes those briars and that is OUCH!. I do a lot of yard work for the neighbor and she has them growing like weeds.
    Whitetail Woods Blog / Muzzleloader Testing

  • Reply
    Nancy Wigmore
    August 9, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Sure have run into a few brier patches myself and stinging nettles too! Sandspurs grew in abundance around our house as well, Barefootin’ was an inside thing when we moved from our old place in Hubert, NC to our home near the coastal waterways when I was 10 years old. When I get home from work nowadays, that the first thing I do is kick my shoes off, however, I still find myself putting my shoes on to step outside, just in case I run across some of those prickly thorns. Thanks for the memory and have a wonderful day!

  • Reply
    August 9, 2010 at 12:18 am

    I’ve not heard of sawbriers before but they sound worse then the blackberries we deal with here. Such a nuisance weed.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    I know these rascals–and now by name!

  • Reply
    Granny Sue
    August 8, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    We call it greenbrier here, Tipper, and it’s just as mean and painful by that name too. A friend showed me a basket she made with it some years ago–it was actually pretty, a sort of free-form, birds-nest looking sculpture.
    I have read somewhere that the young, furled leaves are good to eat, but don’t know if that’s actually true. Have you read that?
    My biggest vine problem in my gardens is the wild sweet potato vine. It takes over and even the tiniest piece of root will sprout. Truly and aggravation.
    You’re right–those early settlers had to be tough like greenbrier to make it here. I wonder if we’d be able to do what they did?

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    I don’t think I know what sawbriers are. Can’t think of the greek word! But we have similar kinds of briers – like the ones in your photo – in the mountains only. On the coast, we’ve got lots of nettles!! Talking of hard times, in Cyprus a lot of men and women work in the fields under a scorching sun and with temps often rising to 100*F.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    yes, i have met the sawbrier thorns and i really like the way you compare life to it. so true. good photos of them. i know that if you are walkig and one has fallen over and your ankle catches on it there are loud screechs coming from that person unless they have on jeans and boots. bare legs are not good around these for sure. you are so right about the Appalachian ability to stand and deliver to remain standing under hardhsip and to enjoy life while doing it. you are blessed to be descended from them and I feel like I am from having lived in those moutains for 5 wonderful years of my life. excuding of course the sawbrier

  • Reply
    kathryn Magendie
    August 8, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I love this! just love it…
    There’s also the fireweed – oh lawd does that burn! Just rub against it and boy do you feel it – then comes the itchy feeling after the burn ….ow!
    Love the metaphor/analogy here…wonderful!
    So glad I’ve subscribed to your blog.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 10:54 am

    you think those things are bad in the hills. You should see them in the low county…such a hassle to keep out of the garden.–Caro

  • Reply
    Pat in east TN
    August 8, 2010 at 10:54 am

    I have wrangled and tangled with sawbriers over the years and just now found out their name! I believe they are in competition with kudzu as far as growing quickly.

  • Reply
    Helen G.
    August 8, 2010 at 10:21 am

    In Oklahoma we have wild roses that we call ‘love roses’ for several reasons… one is they love to grab you when you are weeding and/or taking a walk through the woods and another reason… if a fellow brings you bouquet of them he must really love you to fight the thorns to get the roses.
    Great story. Thanks Tipper!

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Bradley-thank you-your kind words made me blush : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 9:59 am

    David-LOL maybe you could discover the sawbrier extract for a hair tonic-bet you’d get rich quick : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at http://www.blindpigandtheacorn.com

  • Reply
    August 8, 2010 at 9:15 am

    I love your analagy of comparing the saw-briers to the heartaches of life~so true! And right now is a time when everybody needs to be looking up and looking for that sunshine! It’s a time when everybody in America has to learn to be a tough as mountain folk.
    I really don’t like coming across those old briers, but they are everywhere. Getting one wraped around your leg is a real challenge sometimes!

  • Reply
    Boyd Guthrie
    August 8, 2010 at 1:39 am

    When I was young, I was told sawbriers were used as a barriers around your fields to keep bad neighbors from slipping in and helping themselves to you crops or your still.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    August 7, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    Tipper, I enjoy your writings so much. You must know that your philosophical look at things, including the briars of life, cause all of your readers to reflect from the sunny side.
    I never knew the name of that briar, sawbrier. It is common here in Indiana, also, as in your land, along with blackberry briars and multiflora rose. Of all the menaces though, there is no more vicious, no meaner a devil tangling in the brush than the sawbrier. IT HURTS! Blackberry thorns are aggrevating, but sawbriers … they hurt! And cut!
    But, we learn to pull them up by the roots and go on and we know they’ll grow back.
    Is there a plant DNA or gene that could be extracted from sawbrier and developed into a hair tonic to make hair come back, like sawbrier does, even when it looks like it’s gone?

  • Reply
    August 7, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    You have a way words. I mean you bring up things that are in a persons subconscience. Then your ideas or words bring it to the open. Have you ever written a book? You could! I quess it’s sorta like singing, some people can bring you into their song like no one else Example, Hank Williams Sr. could do that like nobody I ever heard. You have the talent to do this with words just like Hank did with his songs. If you haven’t written a book you need to now! Capture those beautiful thoughts on paper before they slip away.
    That statement about the folks sitting on the porch at evening just enjoying the fall sparked my imagination. If you haven’t written a book (like I said before) do it NOW please.

  • Reply
    August 7, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Well, that’s exactly the same way one pulls out stinging nettles, which here in New Hampshire, we have MILLIONS of. I used to be afraid of them they hurt so bad until I learned how to pull them out. Now I’m the master of my garden. Whew!

  • Reply
    August 7, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    It amazes me that you can take one
    of the simpliest things of nature
    and make an interesting story from
    it. As I pulled the ragweeds in my
    cabbage patch ( which didn’t do any good at all ), I got tore up
    from those sawbriars. They even found my Silver Queen after it got
    so hot. It looks like my Half Runners are having a second crop
    coming on, from all the blooms.
    My daddy and mama lived in the hard times, had a family started,
    and they were tough as leather-britches. I heard daddy say “they
    said we had a big depression, but
    we couldn’t tell any difference
    when it ended.” Their faith in God
    and family and country guided them
    through the sawbriars of life.

  • Reply
    August 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Those sawbriers sure can make a mess of your skin, as does others. As kids, we got in them often, but now I try to avoid them all I can. Sure wish Eve hadn’t eat that apple. Guess we all had some tough ancestors to have survived back when things weren’t so convenient.

  • Reply
    August 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Beautiful thoughts inspired by an ugly plant!
    I think our ancestors believed that ugly things exist to add piquancy to the beautiful things in life – it’s all there in our traditional music and stories and the way we love our families and friends! These things are their legacy to us. Even in these hard times we gather and enjoy each other, and when the chips are down, we will hold each other up, just as we’ve always done!

  • Reply
    Brenda Kay Ledford
    August 7, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve sure had my share of getting tangled up with sawbriers. They sure did scratch and hurt the limbs. Yes, I’ve heard about Bro. Bre Rabbit, and of course; Adam and Eve. Our Appalachian ancestors came from a tough stock. I’m glad we came from such fine folks.

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