Ramble Through the Brambles – Using Brambles in Landscaping

Ramble Through the Brambles – Using Brambles in Landscaping

Are there things in life that you wonder why they exist? Unpleasant things like briars and thorns? As we know, everything on this planet has its role in the cycle of life, including the painful, sometimes unattractive plants that poke and jab. Recently, I’ve had a change of heart about them and have come to allow brambles in landscaping. Here’s the story:


A number of years ago, I had an encounter with a briar that seemed to be the universe giving me direction. While pulling vines out of a shrub, I grabbed hold and hollered my statement of doubt. The thorn of the greenbrier jabbed into my hand and told me otherwise. While that painful incident answered my question, I was left wondering why such a painful thing exists. How do spikey plants fit into the natural world, and from a landscaper perspective, into our landscapes?

Many plants, from trees to cactus to vines, have developed effective survival techniques in the form of spikey protrusions. Animals, including humans, can be put-off by plants’ protective spikes leaving the plants to live another day. These “painful plants” have three different types of spikes- thorns, spines and prickles.


Interestingly, thorns are made of the same material as a branch and develop on the stem of the plant at the point of a branch. Thorns contain the xylem and phloem and are therefore a productive part of the plant. The honey locust (Gleditisia triacanthos L.) is the best example of a native thorn tree. Its three-pointed thorns appear on the trunk and branches. The impressive thorns make chewing on or taking down this tree a daunting task for beast or man.

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Thorn-less cultivars of the honey locust have been developed. The overuse of the cultivar has resulted in “a number of disease and insect problems that have made it a short-lived tree in many areas.” (University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment)


Spines, like thorns, are made of vascular material; however, spines are modified leaves or parts of leaves. Cacti (Cactaceae) and American holly (Ilex opaca) are two familiar examples of plants with spines. The spines protect the plant from browsing mammals and herbivores. One example is that the spines decrease the ease by which an insect can move around and eat the leaves.

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The spines on the American holly leaves protect the berries from predators. As an evergreen, it provides lovely green (and red!) in the winter landscape.


Prickles (such a diminutive name) are what stabbed my hand while I was conversing with the universe. Prickles arise from the plants’ skin tissue and do not contain xylem and phloem. The beloved rose produces prickles, not thorns, to protect itself from those who would gather it while they may.

Native brambles include the greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), the pasture rose (Rosa Carolina)  and blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis L.), which is in the rose family. Rose and blackberry brambles have their obvious benefits – lovely flowers and edible fruit. The benefits of the broad leaf, climbing greenbrier are less so.

Greenbrier’s leaves serve as a year-round food source, even in the depths of winter. It’s dark berries, which appear in the winter and spring, are an important food source for many birds.

Brambles in landscaping are part of the understory in an ecosystem and are often the first to take back cleared land. Bushy brambles, such as blackberry, provide protection and habitat for animals. In landscaping, they provide shape and form.

Creative landscaping design Helen, Dahlonega, Lake Lanier, Hiawassee, Georgia
The greenbrier is found in the eastern United States and is a rhizomatous plant, meaning that it spreads by a creeping, underground rootstock. This explains why it is especially hard to remove from the landscape. (Photo: Hallie Harriman/PEC)

That day that the greenbrier and I interacted, I was trying to remove it from a flowering shrub in my yard. These days, I look upon the greenbrier and other spikey plants and see that they have their place in the mostly wooded lot on which I live. As I clear my yard this growing season, I will be more understanding of the brier and live and let live.

These websites provide more information and insight into the world of spikey plants and using brambles in landscaping.

Spikey plants or no, Art of Stone Gardening is here to help you make decisions about your landscape. Give us a call, or contact us for more information on any landscaping project you are planning.

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