It is about this time of year that I occasionally get a question about a plant with a tight cluster of dark blue berries in Turtle Mountain. Although there are a few options, it is often carrion flower or Smilax herbacea. The plant is in the Smilacaceae or Catbrier Family.
Carrion flower is a native herbaceous climbing vine. The plant produces alternate, oval shaped leaves that are 3-4 inches long and a 2-3 inches wide with smooth margins. Unlike most leaves that have straight veins, some of the veins of carrion flower are curved. They are quite distinctive, as are the tendrils at the bases of the leaf stalks.
Carrion flower can be found in woods and thickets across our region. It is well documented in North and South Dakota. Many range maps, however, show it growing east of a line from Ontario and Minnesota southward to Texas, plus Oklahoma and Kansas.
Carrion flower is dioecious, which means there are separate male and female plants. Neither the male nor female flowers are showy, but as the name implies, the female flowers have a smell similar to that of rotten meat. As you might guess, the flowers are pollinated by flies.
Although carrion flower is certainly not rare, it is seldom noticed by the casual observer during the summer months. However, come fall, when the leaves are starting to turn color and the dark blue cluster of berries is in stark contrast to the surrounding foliage it can be quite conspicuous.
The dark blue to almost black berries are produced in a tight looking cluster and are about the size of chokecherries. Once a person has seen the berries and leaves of the plant, it is easily recognized.
I have been told that the fruits of carrion flower are poisonous, but a quick check of some reference books revealed otherwise. Apparently, the fruits are edible and have a pleasant taste. The Lakota ate the berries as a snack. And a few people make jam and jelly from the berries, although it might be difficult to find enough berries to make the effort worthwhile.
Carrion flower is starting to gain interest among gardeners as an ornamental. The climbing habit, interesting foliage, and colorful fruits can provide an interesting contrast in that of the usual garden flowers, particularly during fall. Seeds are commercially available, or you could simply collect some ripe fruits and sow the seeds in some good soil in partial shade.